The Life of Thomas Breakwell
by Rajwantee Lakshiman-Lepain
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"The Life of Thomas Breakwell " by Rajwantee Lakshiman-Lepain
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With grateful thanks to those friends whose kind contributions
made this publication possible.
The dramatic birth of a new world religion and its rapid
spread to every corner of the earth is a phenomenon sometimes best
understood through the lives of its early followers. The story of
the Baha'i Faith, and how the revolutionary teachings of the
majestic figure of Baha'u'llah first reached the West, is still
unknown to many. It is a story of inspiration, of the faith, vision
and sacrifice of apparently ordinary people, who, when faced with
the challenge of spreading a new gospel, proved themselves to be
saintly and holy souls. Some paid with their lives at the hands of
cruel and scheming oppressors, others gave up their substance,
careers and social standing, and many dedicated themselves to lives
of humble service in every part of the globe, laying down their
bones as pioneers of a new and noble cause.
These first followers understood that they were witnesses to
the dawn of a new age of enlightenment. They left a spiritual
heritage from which all of us may draw strength and insight. Only
as history unfolds will we truly begin to understand the
significance of their lives and the power of the faith they
espoused. United by a glorious vision of the coming of age of the
human race, of the fulfilment of prophecy of all the great faiths,
and the realization of the oneness of God, they each lit a torch
which illuminates the path to lasting unity, and to the
establishment of a just and peaceful world.
One such soul was Thomas Breakwell. His brief life may appear
to have left no tangible legacy, but, as we shall learn through
these pages, he was endowed with a truly remarkable station. Having
become a Baha'i in the summer of 1901, Thomas Breakwell passed away
barely a year later, aged only 30. His life is surrounded by an
aura of mystery. Described by 'Abdu'l-Baha as 'a lamp amid the
angels of high Heaven' and by Shoghi Effendi as one of 'three
luminaries' shedding brilliant lustre on the annals of the
Irish, English and Scottish Baha'i communities, Thomas Breakwell's
life certainly invites deep contemplation. Set afire with the love
of God, his deep devotion exemplifies that profound mystical
relationship which unites the lover with his Beloved.
[1 'Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Baha,
comp. Research Department of the Universal House of Justice, trans.
a committee at the Baha'i World Centre and by Marzieh Gail, 1st
pocket size ed. (Wilmette, Ill: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1997),
158.12, p. 198.]
[2 Shoghi Effendi, from a cablegram to the National Spiritual
Assembly of the Baha'is of the British Isles, 27 March 1957,
Unfolding Destiny: The Messages from the Guardian of the Baha'i
Faith to the Baha'i Community of the British Isles (London: Baha'i
Publishing Trust, 1981), p. 377.]
To those followers of Baha'u'llah who live in the West, the
life of Thomas Breakwell offers an example of a true believer, an
expression of loving obedience to the Will of God. Breakwell
desired that his humble life would be accepted as a sacrifice for
the spread of the divine teachings of love and universal
brotherhood. His dedication challenges us all to burn away the
veils of materialism and self which are the cause of so much human
suffering, and to arise for the promotion of the well-being of
Thomas Breakwell died in relative obscurity, a victim of
tuberculosis in a poor quarter of the city of Paris. His earthly
remains now lie in the communal charnel house at the cemetery of
Pantin. It was not until the summer of 1997 that a dignified but
suitably modest monument
to mark his resting place was finally unveiled to the world.
Throughout the United Kingdom, the significance of Thomas
Breakwell's life is being commemorated in an increasing number of
ways. In the 1980s a nation-wide system of Baha'i Sunday Schools
was instituted and named in his honour. This was followed by the
establishment of the Thomas Breakwell College, a distance learning
programme intended to provide moral and spiritual education to a
new generation of young people who are striving, as Thomas
Breakwell did, to see the whole world as one country and all people
as its citizens. All over the world an expanding number of
institutes, programmes and activities seek, in a variety of ways,
to honour his life and foster his remembrance.
Thomas Breakwell's name will never be forgotten. His true gift
to us lies in the sacred vision that he realized in his brief life.
The brightness and purity of his faith will continue to illuminate
the hopes of many future generations.
We are much indebted to Rajwantee Lakshman-Lepain for
preparing this valuable introduction to the life, rank and station
of Thomas Breakwell. This has been ably translated from the
original French by Olive McKinley. Our thanks also to Hugh McKinley
and Sally Spears for their practical support in promoting its
publication. Our hope is that this volume will serve to widen
interest in and encourage study of this fascinating episode in the
development of a world-embracing faith, which is today the source
of inspiration for millions.
THE CALL OF GOD
Thomas Breakwell was born on 31 May 1872 in the small market
town of Woking in Surrey. His father, Edward, was an ironmonger and
a herbalist who, at some point during the 1860s, had joined the
nonconformist Christian sect known as the primitive Methodists and
subsequently held evangelical meetings in the family home. Thomas,
the youngest of five children, was educated at an ordinary state
school before his family emigrated to the United States.
[3 This paragraph is from Robert Weinberg, Ethel Jenner Rosenberg:
The Life and Times of England's Outstanding Baha'i Pioneer Worker
(Oxford: George Ronald, 1995), p. 42.]
There Thomas was able to take up a responsible position in a
cotton mill in one of the southern states, from which he derived
a considerable income. His comfortable financial position enabled
him to pay regular visits to his relatives in England each summer,
and to take long holidays on the Continent.
Thomas seems to have been of an open mind when it came to
spiritual matters. He was very interested in religious doctrines
and the Hermetic philosophies in general, and in particular that
of the Theosophical Society, to which he may have belonged. This
movement, founded in 1875 in the United States by Mme. Blavatsky
and Colonel Olcott, was much in vogue among British and Indian
seekers at the time. The interest this Society showed in the occult
and the esoteric, with their particularly oriental approaches, may
well have predisposed Thomas Breakwell to turn towards the mystical
universe which lies at the heart of the Baha'i religion.
His sensitivity towards things of the spirit led him, while
taking the steamer to France in the summer of 1901, to make the
acquaintance of a certain Mrs Milner. The latter, although having
no personal interest in religion, felt impelled, seeing Breakwell's
passion for spiritual subjects, to speak to him of one of her
friends in Paris, who had, she said, found a philosophy which had
given meaning to her life. The young woman in question was none
other than May Bolles, the future May Maxwell.
May Ellis Bolles had been among the first party of Western
pilgrims to visit 'Abdu'l-Baha in 'Akka, in 1898-9. By that time
she had been living in Paris for a number of years, during which
time she had attended a convent school there, and where her
brother, Randolph, had taken
up a course of architectural studies at the Ecole des Beaux Arts.
Her mother had rented an apartment on the fashionable Quai d'Orsay;
May and Randolph also lived there with her. 'Abdu'l-Baha
recommended that May remain in that city, and entrusted her with
the special responsibility of establishing the first Baha'i centre
in Europe there.
[4 For an account of that historic visit, see May Maxwell, An Early
Pilgrimage (Oxford: George Ronald Publisher, 1976 ed.)]
'Abdu'l-Baha once said of Himself, 'I have a Lamp in my hand
and seas to find souls who can become heralds of the Cause.'
Surely May Bolles was one of those very souls whom 'Abdu'l-Baha
sought -- and found.
[5 'Abdu'l-Baha, 'The Most Important Work', Star of the West, vol.
IV, no 15, p. 256 (bound vol. 3). (Oxford: George Ronald, 1978).]
One of those who accepted the Baha'i Faith in Paris during
this time wrote, 'In 1901 and 1902 the Paris group of Baha'is
numbered between twenty-five and thirty
people with May Boles as spiritual guide and teacher.
[6 Charles Mason Remey, cited in Marion Holley, 'May Ellis
Maxwell', The Baha'i World: A Biennial International Record,
prepared under the supervision of the National Spiritual Assembly
of the Baha'is of the United States and Canada with the approval
of Shoghi Effendi, vol. VII (95 and 96 of the Baha'i Era, 1938-1940
A.D.), (Wilmette, Ill: Baha'i Publishing Committee, 1942), p. 634.]
The Master had told May that she should 'on no account absent
[herself] from Paris.' So she had remained there through the summer
of 1901, despite her mother's wish that she should accompany her
on holiday to Brittany. Mrs. Bolles rather resented her daughter's
work for the Baha'i Cause, and had no hesitation in closing her
apartment when she left the city, so May had to find accommodation
with another believer, Edith Jackson. It was to this apartment that
Mrs Milner brought Breakwell.
[7 This paragraph is adapted from Weinberg, p. 43.]
On a pleasant day that summer, May Bolles opened the door to
Thomas Breakwell and Mrs Milner. As she entered, Mrs Milner said,
smiling, 'He was a stranger and she took him in.' May's
attention was immediately drawn to this young man, 'of medium
height, slender, erect and graceful, with intense eyes and an
[8 Unless otherwise stated, all quotations in this section are
taken from May Maxwell, 'A Brief Account of Thomas Breakwell', The
Baha'i World, vol. VII (93 and 94 of the Baha'i Era, April
1936-1938 AD), (New York: Baha'i Publishing Committee, 1939), pp.
May made no actual mention of the divine Revelation during
their first meeting. Nor did Mrs Milner, she having, in May's
words, 'closed her ears to its message.' The conversation mainly
centred on Theosophy, the details of Thomas's work, and his
projected trip through Europe. As it continued, May could discern
that Thomas was 'a very rare person of high standing and culture,
simple, natural, intensely real in his attitude toward life and his
fellowmen.' She also became aware that Thomas was studying her most
As he was leaving, Thomas asked if he might call on her again
the following day.
When he returned the next day, May was surprised. Thomas came
to her 'in a strangely exalted mood, no veil of materiality covered
this radiant soul -- his eyes burned with a hidden fire'. He looked
at her earnestly, and asked if she saw anything strange in him. May
replied that he looked very happy. At once, unable to contain
himself any longer, he told his new found friend what had caused
this state of mind. May recalls Thomas's words as follows:
'When I was here yesterday,' he said, 'I felt a power, an
influence that I had felt once before in my life, when for a
three months I was continually in communion with God. I felt
that time like one moving in a rarefied atmosphere of light
beauty. My heart was on fire with love for the supreme
Beloved. I felt
at peace, at one with all my fellow-men. Yesterday when I left
I went alone down the Champs Elysees, the air was warm and
not a leaf was stirring, when suddenly a wind struck me and
around me, and in that wind a voice said, with an
sweetness and penetration, 'Christ has come again! Christ has
Afterwards Thomas looked at May with wide, startled eyes, and
asked her if she thought he was going insane. With a smile, she
replied: 'No, you are just becoming sane.' She then spoke to him
of the Bab, His exalted Mission, His martyrdom, and the thousands
of Babis who sacrificed their lives to establish the
Faith; she then told him of the coming of Baha'u'llah, the Blessed
Beauty, 'Who shone upon the world as the Sun of eternity', and of
His laws and teachings.
For three days, Thomas absorbed May's words. For the first,
he accepted the Message without reservation, and eagerly received
all the books which May had to give him. His enthusiasm grew even
greater when she recounted her pilgrimage to 'Akka, where she had
met the Master, 'Abdu'l-Baha. The experiences which May had in the
presence of this holy Being so much impressed Breakwell that,
sighing deeply, he decided there and then to break with his old
life and cancel all his travel plans. From that moment on he had
only one desire: to be received by 'Abdu'l-Baha, to contemplate the
face of his Beloved.
On the third day, he decided to write to 'Abdu'l-Baha, to
inform Him of his acceptance of the Baha'i Faith, and to seek His
permission to make pilgrimage to 'Akka. It was a letter of only two
'My Lord, I believe, forgive me,
Thy servant Thomas Breakwell.'
According to May's account, the simplicity of this request was
typical of Thomas's concise and exalted mind. She was intrigued by
his appeal for forgiveness, the significance of which, she said,
only became apparent later.
Around that time, another young believer newly welcomed into
the fold, Herbert Hopper, had obtained permission to go to 'Akka.
Thomas promptly got in touch with him, and they
planned to go together. All was set, and the only thing remaining
was to secure the Master's authorization for Thomas's visit.
That day, May forwarded Thomas's message to 'Akka, along with
one of her own, asking the Master to send His reply to Port Said,
where the two young men planned to disembark. That very evening,
when May returned to her apartment, to her great surprise she found
in her letter box a blue cablegram from 'Abdu'l-Baha which said:
'You may leave Paris at any time!'
May drew her own conclusion from these most surprising events:
'Thus by implicit and unquestioning obedience in the face of
opposition the Master's Will had been fulfilled, and I had
been the link in
the chain of His mighty purpose.'
'How gratefully my heart dwells on the divine compassion of
Master, on the joy and wonder of my mother as I told her
when she burst into tears and exclaimed, 'You have, indeed,
Through this series of coincidences, this deployment of
celestial forces, the Divine Being expressed His Will, and made it
reality by bringing to May the soul for whom she had waited.
Marion Holley described 'the confirmation of that brightest
of spirits, Thomas Breakwell' as 'Perhaps the most wondrous event
of that fecund time'. Thomas, it is certain, was a mature soul,
because of his capacity to assimilate all the teachings of the
Faith in a single moment. We
might well think of him as a 'chosen' soul, because of the special
manner of his conversion. Rather than being rationally convinced,
by argument and proof, of the reality of the Manifestation of God,
his spiritual confirmation was instantaneous and complete. Having
accepted this great truth, he saw his life up to that point in a
completely different perspective, and understood the nature of his
future mission. A 'chosen' soul, too, in terms of his tremendous
spiritual capacities and love for humanity, evident at such a young
age. Nevertheless, he was not to know the full extent of his
destiny till he attained the presence of Him whom he humbly
referred to as his Lord: 'Abdu'l-Baha.
[9 Marion Holley, op. cit., p. 635.]
Thomas Breakwell enjoys the unique distinction of being the
first Englishman to make the journey to the Holy Land as a Baha'i
May Maxwell describes that first visit of the two young
western gentlemen to the city of 'Akka, and their arrival at the
house of 'Abdu'llah Pasha,
'...they were ushered into a spacious room, at one end of
stood a group of men in oriental garb. Herbert Hopper's face
irradiated with the joy of instant recognition, but Breakwell
one in particular among these men. Feeling
suddenly ill and
weak, he seated himself near a table, with a sense of crushing
Wild and desperate thoughts rushed through his mind, his first
test, for without such tests the soul will never be unveiled.
'Sitting thus he bitterly lamented: Why had he come here? Why
had he abandoned his projected journey and come to this remote
prison, seeking -- he knew not what?'
[10 May Maxwell, 'A Brief Account of Thomas Breakwell', p. 709.]
May emphasizes this moment as one in which Thomas's soul was
poised to rend asunder whatever veils still obscured the Sun of
Reality. His despair tortured him, until, suddenly, a door opened
and revealed the figure of the Master. Immediately, Thomas
recognized his Lord.
In his interview with 'Abdu'l-Baha, Thomas explained how he
enjoyed substantial remuneration from his work in the United
States, but he also expressed a sudden conviction of sin when he
added that these mills were run on child labour. The Master looked
at him, gravely and silently, then said, 'Cable your resignation.'
May's account tells how Thomas obeyed 'Abdu'l-Baha at once.
With one stroke he had cut all ties to his former life, and was
relieved of his crushing burden. He now had only one desire, to
please the Master. Although only moments earlier he had felt weak
and full of doubt, he was now completely transformed.
Although his stay in 'Akka was short, Thomas made a lasting
impression. Dr. Yunis Khan Afrukhtih, 'Abdu'l-Baha's secretary,
relates the following:
'The fervour and the faith of this young man were so sublime in
character that the blessed name of Breakwell shall ring throughout
the centuries, and shall be remembered with deep affection in many
chronicles. Verses from the Gospels which attest to the glories of
the Kingdom were always on his lips. His sojourn in 'Akka was too
short, but so intense was his love and so ardent his zeal that he
touched the depths of the hearts of those who heard him. Whenever
he was in the presence of our peerless Master, he was rapt in
[11 Yunis Khan Afrukhtih, cited in H. M. Balyuzi, 'Abdu'l-Baha:
The Centre of the Covenant of Baha'u'llah (Oxford: George Ronald,
1971), p. 77.]
Thomas did not have time to meet all the Baha'i friends in
'Akka. Because of regulations imposed by the authorities, his visit
was restricted to two days only. When
the moment of departure finally arrived, 'Abdu'l-Baha asked him to
settle permanently in Paris.
The Master then asked Yunis Khan to accompany Thomas to Haifa,
from where his ship was to sail. The emotion of the occasion was
intense. Breakwell left the Holy Land without knowing that he would
never again see his beloved Master, but his soul had been so deeply
touched by 'Abdu'l-Baha's divine love it would have lasted the
Yunis Khan spent a few hours in Thomas's company at the home
of one of the believers. He testifies to the young pilgrim's
'...we were in a room that looked towards 'Akka. There he
stand, every now and then, perfectly still, facing
'Akka in a
state of communion. Whilst his eyes welled with tears, his
uttered words of supplication. All those who were there were
In this ecstatic state, Thomas asked Yunis Khan if he could
correspond with him. Thomas expressed the desire that his letters
would bring to him 'the fragrances of the effulgent city of
From then on, the correspondence with Yunis Khan would be the
vital link that united the young Englishman with his beloved
All those who were present wept as the time came to bid
farewell to this devoted young pilgrim who had made such a lasting
impression. Thomas followed his Master's bidding and returned to
A STAR IN THE FIRMAMENT OF PARIS
Back in Paris, Thomas lost no time in sharing with others the
wonderful spirit which the Master had released within him.
The firmness of his faith was apparent to all, as was his
sincere wish to serve the Cause, and obey the Covenant. May writes
of him in the following terms:
'Those days in the Prison of 'Akka, when the Master's all
consuming love and perfect wisdom had produced that mystic change
of heart and soul which enabled him to rapidly free himself from
all earthly entanglement, and to passionately attach himself to the
world of reality, brought great fruits to the Faith.'
[14 Unless otherwise stated, all quotations in this section are
taken from May Maxwell, 'A Brief Account of Thomas Breakwell'.]
Although he had been used to living fairly comfortably, Thomas
now completely changed his way of life. He returned to his studies,
and went to live in an inexpensive neighbourhood, probably at No.
14, Rue Leonie, the place of residence entered on his death
certificate. The same document, discovered in 1979, tells us that
he was working as a stenographer before his death. Although Thomas
lived a long way from the city centre, he used always to go on foot
to the Baha'i meetings, in order to save his fare and make his
contribution to the teaching work in Paris. He was the first Baha'i
in the West to pay Huququ'llah, the Right of God. No care for the
future ever oppressed his mind. He had but one concern: to serve
humanity until his last breath.
So abandoned was he to the creative forces latent in the
Revelation of Baha'u'llah, that he was moved spontaneously in the
smallest actions of his daily life to pour out that spirit of love
and oneness to all.
May records one incident which illustrates his truly
'Well I remember the day we were crossing a bridge over the
Seine on the top of a bus, when he spied an old woman
pushing an apple-cart up an incline; excusing himself with a
climbed down off the bus, joined the old woman, and in the
way put his hands on the bar and helped her over the bridge.'
She describes Thomas's exemplary courtesy in the following
'The rock foundation on which the Baha'i Revelation rests,
oneness of mankind", had penetrated his soul like an essence,
every form of human relationship, imbuing him with an insight
penetration into human needs, an intense sympathy and genuine
made him a hope and refuge to all.'
She further relates:
'Although we were fellow Baha'is and devoted friends, with
everything in common, yet when he came to our home he gave his
attention to my beautiful Mother, with but a scant word
for me, yet
as he took my hand in farewell, he slipped a little folded
into my palm with words of cheer and comfort, usually Words
Admiringly, May concludes:
'He knew the secret of imparting happiness and was the very
embodiment of the Master's words, 'The star of happiness is
in every heart.
We must remove the veils so that it may shine forth
Thomas not only excelled in his social relations, he had
guiding light in the Paris community in all matters concerning
teaching of the Cause.'
'In the meetings, he spoke with a simplicity and eloquence
won the hearts and quickened the souls, and the secret of his
influence lay in his supreme recognition of the Manifestation
of God in
the Bab and in Baha'u'llah, and of the sublime Centre of the
The potential which, from their first meeting, May had seen
in this young man, was now manifest in its full splendour.
The effects which this spiritual growth produced were then so
remarkable, that May went so far as to comment:
'He had become the guiding star of our group, his calmness and
strength, his intense fervour, his immediate and
all-penetrating grasp of
the vast import
to mankind in this age of the Revelation of
Baha'u'llah, released among us forces which constituted a new
epoch in the
Cause in France.'
These words are especially poignant when one thinks of
Thomas's young age, of the influence he demonstrated both during
his life and after his death. For, truly, he was unlike anyone
else. The spiritual maturity he evinced was that of a much older
Thomas continued a fortnightly correspondence with Dr Yunis
Khan, who shared all his letters with 'Abdu'l-Baha. He would inform
Him of Thomas's situation and of his desire to do the Master's
will. In one of his letters, Thomas asked whether the Master would
permit him to leave Paris for a few
days for England, should one of his parents become ill or die.
Then, upon reflection, he thought it was not necessary to trouble
'Abdu'l-Baha with this question, since He would certainly reply as
Christ had already replied, that he must 'Let the dead bury their
dead'. Dr. Khan read the message to 'Abdu'l-Baha, Who smiled and
told him to reply that, today, 'the living must bury the dead'.
[15 A. Q. Faizi, 'A Precious Gift', Baha'i Journal, Nov. 1969.]
In one of Thomas's later letters to 'Akka, he said that he now
understood what he must do, but was still hoping to please the
Master more, to suffer more for his Beloved. No one yet knew what
this suffering was of which he spoke. Matters became more complex
when Thomas's parents arrived in Paris, seeking to persuade him to
return at once to England, to convalesce from his
increasingly poor health. But Thomas steadfastly refused to leave
He asked 'Abdu'l-Baha to pray for his parents, so that they
might become Baha'is. The Master replied that Thomas should not
worry over that matter, and, only a fortnight later, Thomas
informed 'Abdu'l-Baha that his father, who had previously disowned
him for rejecting Primitive Methodism, had embraced the Baha'i
Faith. Edward Breakwell even went so far as to write his own letter
of supplication to the Master. 'Abdu'l-Baha revealed a Tablet in
Thomas wrote to the Master, happily saying that, if he were
Persian, he would have chosen to be a martyr. He had been admitted
to hospital, and was in the tuberculosis ward. But news from the
young man continued to reach
'Akka, conveying an ever-increasing joy, despite his suffering.
Sometimes, when Dr. Khan read Thomas's letters to
'Abdu'l-Baha, the Master would remain silent. Dr. Khan knew that
the 'mysterious communion between the lover and the Beloved had no
need of the spoken word.' At other times, the Master would ask
his secretary simply to convey His greetings. Although Thomas could
have asked for healing, he never did, but prayed always for greater
suffering. The more his illness consumed him, the greater his joy
[16 Yunis Khan, cited in Balyuzi, p. 78.]
Hippolyte Dreyfus, who was able to visit Thomas in hospital,
relates how the young Englishman spoke to the other patients
enthusiastically about the Baha'i Faith. Some of his listeners were
upset by his message, others criticized it. But
Thomas, unperturbed, maintained his tranquillity and told them that
he was not going to die, but was merely departing for the Kingdom
of God, and that he would pray for them in heaven.
Writing of his pain, he said:
'Suffering is a heady wine; I am prepared to receive that
which is the greatest of all; torments of the flesh have
enabled me to
draw much nearer to my Lord. All agony notwithstanding, I wish
to endure longer, so that I may taste more of pain. That which
desire is the good-pleasure of my Lord; mention me in His
[17 Thomas Breakwell, cited ibid.]
Thomas Breakwell breathed his last at seven p.m., on 13 June
1902, at No. 200, rue Faubourg Saint Denis. He was 30
years of age; he had been a Baha'i for hardly one year. But from
that moment on, he possessed all eternity to live and proclaim his
The mysterious nature of the unspoken communion between the
lover and the Beloved can be seen in the way in which Yunis Khan
learned of Thomas's death.
'I was accompanying the Master in the evening from the house
where He received His visitors to His home by the seaside. All
sudden He turned to me and said: 'Have you heard?' 'No,
replied, and He said: 'Breakwell has passed away. I am
grieved. I have revealed a prayer of visitation for him. It
moving, so moving that twice I could not withhold my tears
when I was
it. You must translate it well, so that whoever reads it
will weep.' I never knew who had given the Master the news of
Breakwell's death. If anyone had written or cabled either in
French, that communication would have passed through my hands.
later the prayer of visitation was given to me. It wrung one's
and I could not hold back my tears. I translated it into
later, with the help of Lua Getsinger, into English.
[18 Ibid., pp. 79-9.]
Yunis Khan recounts the following story regarding the Master's
continuing attachment to Thomas, after his passing from this
'Abdu'l-Baha called me one day to His presence, to give me
letters to translate. There
were many envelopes sent from various
places. While examining them still sealed, He, all of a
out one and said: "How pleasing is the fragrance that emanates
this envelope. Make haste, open it and see where it comes
Haste."... In it there was a postcard ... the postcard was
beautiful shade, and attached to it was a solitary flower --
Written in letters of gold were these words: "He is not dead.
on in the Kingdom of God." Further, there was this sentence:
flower was picked from Breakwell's grave.' When I told the
the message of the postcard was, He at once rose up from His
took the card, put it on His blessed brow, and tears flowed
[19 Ibid., p. 80.]
In a letter, enclosed with the card, Edward Breakwell wrote,
'Praise be to the Lord that my son left this world for the next
with the recognition and love of 'Abdu'l-Baha.
[20 Cited in Weinberg, p. 46.]
Thomas Breakwell's grave was leased for five years, after
which time, as no surviving members of his family kept up the
payments on the plot, his bones were disinterred, cleaned, bundled
and numbered, and as is the custom, placed in the cemetery's
charnel house. The section where Breakwell's bones are stacked has
long since been sealed and other sections built against it, which
in turn have been filled.
[21 Ibid., pp. 46-7.]
Since the time when Thomas's bones were removed, two other
people had been buried in this grave. When it
became known to the Baha'is in Paris that the gravesite was once
again vacant, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of
France applied for permission to erect a permanent monument to
Thomas on the site. A competition was announced, and a number of
Baha'i architects submitted a variety of designs. Cemetery
officials were reluctant to give approval for an elaborate
monument, and the National Assembly had to settle for a simple but
Now that stone is in place, and has already become a focal
point of pilgrimage. The Universal House of Justice has encouraged
the French Baha'i community to continue its efforts to retrieve
Thomas's remains from the charnel house and have them returned to
their original grave.
In a Tablet to Ethel Rosenberg, another outstanding early
British believer, 'Abdu'l-Baha stated that,
'Holy places are undoubtedly centres of the outpouring of
grace, because on entering the illumined sites associated with
and holy souls, and by observing reverence, both physical and
spiritual, one's heart is moved with great tenderness. ...it
and acceptable in the sight of God if a person desires to draw
unto Him by visiting them...'
[22 'Abdu'l-Baha, cited in Universal House of Justice, A Synopsis
and Codification of The Kitab-i-Aqdas (Haifa: Baha'i World Centre,
1973), p. 61.]
On 14 June 1997, 95 years to the day since the mortal remains
of Thomas Breakwell were laid to rest, a diverse group of Baha'is,
representing the inheritors of that glorious legacy of faith
which Thomas left to the world, gathered at the Pantin Cemetery in
Paris, to honour his memory at the dedication of the newly erected
memorial, and to participate in a celebration of Thomas's life and
[23 For more information, see Rob Weinberg, 'The Commemoration
of Thomas Breakwell', Baha'i Journal, September 1997, pp. 12-13.]
TABLET REVEALED BY
Grieve thou not over the ascension of my beloved Breakwell,
for he hath risen unto a rose garden of splendours within the Abha
Paradise, sheltered by the mercy of his mighty Lord, and he is
crying at the top of his voice: 'O that my people could know how
graciously my Lord hath forgiven me, and made me to be of those who
have attained His Presence!'
O Breakwell, O my dear one!
Where now is thy fair face? Where is thy fluent tongue? Where
thy clear brow? Where thy bright comeliness?
O Breakwell, O my dear one!
Where is thy fire, blazing with God's love? Where is thy
rapture at His holy breaths? Where are thy praises, lifted unto
Him? Where is thy rising up to serve His Cause?
O Breakwell, O my dear one!
Where are thy beauteous eyes? Thy smiling lips? The princely
cheek? The graceful form?
O Breakwell, O my dear one!
Thou hast quit this earthly world and risen upward to the
Kingdom, thou hast reached unto the grace of the invisible realm,
and offered thyself at the threshold of its Lord.
O Breakwell, O my dear one!
Thou hast left the lamp that was thy body here, the glass that
was thy human form, thy earthy elements, thy way of life below.
O Breakwell, O my dear one!
Thou hast lit a flame within the lamp of the Company on high, thou
hast set foot in the Abha Paradise, thou hast found a shelter in
the shadow of the Blessed Tree, thou hast attained His meeting in
the haven of Heaven.
O Breakwell, O my dear one!
Thou art now a bird of Heaven, thou hast quit thine earthly
nest, and soared away to a garden of holiness
in the kingdom of thy Lord. Thou hast risen to a station filled
O Breakwell, O my dear one!
Thy song is even as birdsong now, thou pourest forth verses
as to the mercy of thy Lord; of Him Who forgiveth ever, thou wert
a thankful servant, wherefore hast thou entered into exceeding
O Breakwell, O my dear one!
Thy Lord hath verily singled thee out for His love, and hath
led thee into His precincts of holiness, and made thee to enter the
garden of those who are His close companions, and hath blessed thee
with beholding His beauty.
O Breakwell, O my dear one!
Thou hast won eternal life, and the bounty that faileth never,
and a life to please thee well, and plenteous grace.
O Breakwell, O my dear one!
Thou art become a star in the supernal sky, and a lamp amid
the angels of high Heaven; a living spirit in the most exalted
Kingdom, throned in eternity.
O Breakwell, O my dear one!
I ask of God to draw thee ever closer, hold thee ever faster;
to rejoice thy heart with nearness to His presence, to fill thee
with light and still more
light, to grant thee still more beauty, and to bestow upon thee
power and great glory.
O Breakwell, O my dear one!
At all times do I call thee to mind. I shall never forget
thee. I pray for thee by day, by night; I see thee plain before me,
as if in open day.
O Breakwell, O my dear one!
[24 'Abdu'l-Baha, Selections, 185.1-15, pp. 196-9.]
This sublime Tablet not only moves the reader, as 'Abdu'l-Baha
wished, but also prompts one to ponder the unique character of
Thomas Breakwell, that he should have attained such a station,
should have become 'a star in the supernal sky, and a lamp amid the
angels of high Heaven', 'like unto the birds chanting the verses
of thy Lord, the Forgiving', should have been blessed with
'beholding His Beauty'.
The terms used by 'Abdu'l-Baha are moving and significant.
Yet, Thomas was a believer for a very short period of his life. One
may also be surprised to read Shoghi Effendi, on the occasion of
the passing of George Townshend, state that he merited a place
beside Thomas Breakwell and John Esslemont as one of
'three luminaries shedding brilliant lustre' on the annals of
the Irish, English and Scottish Baha'i communities. Shoghi Effendi
paid tribute to George Townshend's 'sterling qualities his
scholarship his challenging writings high ecclesiastical position
unrivalled any Baha'i western world'; John Esslemont was the
author of a book which won singular praise from the Guardian, who
said that it would 'inspire generations yet unborn to tread the
path of truth and service as steadfastly and as unostentatiously
as was trodden by its beloved author.' Both John Esslemont and
George Townshend were designated Hands of the Cause of God by the
Guardian of the Baha'i Faith: the former posthumously, the
latter during his own lifetime. That honour was never
bestowed upon Thomas. Neither was he included among that group of
twenty-one distinguished early western believers whom Shoghi
Effendi designated 'the Disciples of 'Abdu'l-Baha', and 'Heralds
of the Covenant'.
[25 Shoghi Effendi, Unfolding Destiny, p. 377.]
[27 Shoghi Effendi, from a message 'To the beloved of God and the
handmaids of the Merciful in the East and in the West', 30 November
1925, ibid., p. 43.]
[29 See Shoghi Effendi, cablegram 24 December 1951, Messages to
World 1950-1957 (Wilmette, Ill: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1995
reprint), p. 20.]
[30 See The Baha'i World, vol. III, pp. 84-5. Also, The Baha'i
World, vol. IV, pp. 118-19.]
Compared to the lasting achievements of Esslemont and
Townshend, the significance of Thomas Breakwell's life and death
seems a mystery indeed. By all accounts he left no tangible legacy
for posterity. He was a Baha'i for less than a year. Until
recently, even his final resting place was left unmarked. One can
but wonder why it was that 'Abdu'l-Baha should have written about
him in such glowing terms; and why Shoghi Effendi should have named
him one of these 'three luminaries', and ranked him as co-equal in
such exalted company.
Many intriguing issues arise when one ponders such questions as:
Why did Thomas long for death so? Why did he wish for more
suffering? How did he know that he would please God by drinking
from the cup of sorrow, when, in any case he could not escape it?
Were not his qualities of more benefit to humanity when he was
living rather than dead?
How can one explain all this deployment of mysterious forces
which led him to come into contact with the Baha'i Faith, then live
for such a short time after that? Is there some kind of hidden
meaning to his life?
Perhaps 'Abdu'l-Baha Himself may lift the veil a little for
us. In the last talk He gave in Paris, on 1 December 1911, nine
years after the death of Thomas Breakwell, 'Abdu'l-Baha said:
'When I arrived in Paris some time ago for the first time, I
looked around me with much interest, and in my mind I likened
beautiful city to a large garden.
'With loving care and much thought I examined the soil, and
found it to be very good and full of possibility for steadfast
and firm belief, for a seed of God's love has been cast into
[31 'Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks: Addresses Given by 'Abdu'l-Baha
in 1911, 12th rev. ed. (London: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1995),
53.1-2, pp. 178-8. Emphasis added.]
It is tempting to conclude that Thomas Breakwell was chosen
to be the seed of the love of God of which 'Abdu'l-Baha speaks
here. Planted by the hand of the Master Himself, it was helped to
grow and flourish, and to produce fresh seedlings whose maturation
would signal a decisive stage in the history of the Faith in this
capital city. Such was his destiny! Is
this why Thomas Breakwell was so on fire, and so urgently wished
to give his life, to drink the cup of suffering, because he knew
that he would serve the Cause better this way, since God had
bestowed tremendous hidden powers on him?
Thomas's sacrifice recalls that of Mirza Mihdi, Baha'u'llah's
youngest son, whose death released such forces as to throw open the
doors of the prison which hid the Manifestation of God from the
eyes of the world.
What similar forces were released by the sacrifice of Thomas
If May Bolles, even at that time, thought that he had
liberated forces in the Parisian Baha'i community, the appearance
of which launched a new epoch in the Cause, if she claimed that the
spirit of Thomas Breakwell continues to
live, 'not alone in the hearts and memories of the Baha'is, but is
also welded into the very structure of the World Order', what can
be said today, now that almost a hundred years separates us from
the time of Thomas's passing?
SPIRITUAL RANK AND STATION
It is probably impossible for most of us to truly comprehend
the spiritual station of the great souls of religious history.
Thankfully, however, the Baha'i Writings do cast light on some
aspects of the glorious rank which Thomas Breakwell appears to have
The Seven Valleys by Baha'u'llah and the prayer of visitation
revealed by 'Abdu'l-Baha in honour of Thomas Breakwell are two
texts which offer distinct but complementary approaches to
understanding spiritual reality. One revealing the process of
evolution that every soul must undergo, and the other, the heights
to which it may aspire.
BREAKWELL'S MYSTICAL JOURNEY
Baha'u'llah's Seven Valleys traces the mystical journey of the
spiritual seeker, and the joys and sorrows to be encountered along
that pathway. The life of Thomas Breakwell takes on a deeper
meaning when considered in the light of that mystical work.
The spiritual odyssey of Thomas Breakwell could be described
imaginatively here, and may, in turn, set an example by which to
approach The Seven Valleys itself. The concordance of incidents
from what we know of Thomas's inner and outer life, with
Baha'u'llah's descriptions of the tests and triumphs of spiritual
advancement, may be said to be striking indeed.
Thomas Breakwell's progress towards God could be said to take
each of the Seven Valleys. This young man was first attracted to
Theosophy and the fashionable spiritualist theories of this day.
In this condition, he travels through the Valley of Search and
seeks for the 'Beauty of the Friend' with the fervour of a
mystic lover. 'How many a Jacob will he see, hunting after his
Joseph', and how many lovers, 'hasting to seek the Beloved', before
being guided to May Bolles?
[32 Unless otherwise stated, all quotation is this section are
from Baha'u'llah, The Seven Valleys, trans. Ali Kuli Khan and
Marzieh Gail London: Nightingale Books, 1992).]
Did not the 'aid from the Invisible Realm' guide his steps
when, walking through the streets of Paris, he heard a voice
announcing the return of Christ to him, and did not the 'heat of
his search' 'grow' as soon as he, in a state of exaltation,
returned to see his friend May and tell her of his strange
experience? 'And if, by the help of God,' as
Baha'u'llah describes it, 'he findeth on this journey a trace of
the traceless Friend', and 'inhaleth the fragrance of the long-lost
Joseph from the heavenly messenger, he shall straightway step into
the Valley of Love and be dissolved in the fire of love.'
Did he not feel, from that moment, the ultimate longing to see
his Beloved -- 'Abdu'l-Baha -- as soon as he had declared his
faith? Thomas was now 'unaware of himself, and of aught else
besides himself.' He saw 'neither ignorance nor knowledge, neither
doubt nor certitude'. He abandoned all his former plans and set
sail for 'Akka. But the seeker had not yet acquired the certitude
of the True Believer, for in the Valley of Love, 'if there be no
pain this journey will never end.'
Having actually reached the prison city of 'Akka, Thomas was
seized by fear while awaiting the arrival of the Master. Doubts
assailed him. He wondered why he had come so far to that remote
prison? He did not know that 'until, like Jacob, thou forsake thine
outward eyes, thou shalt never open the eye of thine inward being;
and until thou burn with the fire of love, thou shalt never commune
with the Lover of Longing.' It appears at this stage that Thomas
remained attached to the material world, and so was unable to
experience the same joy as his travelling companion, Herbert
Hopper. It was not until, seated by the Master's side, that the
veil was suddenly lifted. 'Abdu'l-Baha's loving presence touched
his soul, revealing to him at once, the real nature of life's
vanities and injustices.
Thomas was not one of those many souls who choose to remain
deprived of the spirit of life by wrapping themselves in veils of
materialism. He possessed 'great qualities' which enabled him to
know 'the fire of love'. Soon the overwhelming sense of solitude
and despair which had first enveloped him became dissolved through
the intense flame of his pure-hearted devotion. Instead, he was
seized by transports of delight through meeting at last his beloved
Master. His ego and all its attachments was forgotten. He thus
entered the Valley of Knowledge, where he came 'out of doubt into
certitude', and 'from the darkness of illusion to the guiding light
of the fear of God'.
Thomas could now leave 'Akka satisfied, and begin to 'privily
with his Beloved' when, as he was departing, he turned one last
time to pay homage to that holy place. 'With inward and outward
eyes he witnesseth', from then onwards, 'the mysteries of
resurrection in the realms of creation and the souls of men.'
When Thomas made his way back from 'Akka to Paris, where, at
the Master's wish, he was going to settle, the spiritual journey
of his soul was continuing. 'He beholdeth justice in injustice, an
din justice, grace. In ignorance he findeth many a knowledge
hidden, and in knowledge a myriad of wisdoms manifest.' In Paris,
Thomas devoted himself to teaching the Cause and displayed great
solicitude to everyone, as May Bolles noted: 'If he meeteth with
injustice he shall have
patience and if he cometh upon wrath, he shall manifest love.' Is
not this how Thomas reacted when he became aware that he himself
was doomed in this mortal world? His illness was consuming him; he
knew he could not escape it. Before the injustice of this enemy
which had attacked him while still so young, did he not manifest
courage and gratitude to God?
'Those who journey in the garden-land of knowledge,' explains
Baha'u'llah, 'because they see the end in the beginning, see peace
in war and friendliness in anger.'
'After passing through the Valley of Knowledge, which is the
last plane of limitation, the wayfarer cometh to the Valley of
Unity and drinketh from the cup of the Absolute, and gazeth on the
Manifestations of Oneness.'
May Bolles said of Thomas Breakwell that he had so well
understood the spirit of unity inherent in the religion of
Baha'u'llah that his very essence was impregnated with it. Thomas
entered into a mystic union with God, upon Whom he continually
called in prayer. 'He burned with such a fire of love that his
frail body seemed to be gradually consumed.' He seemed to be
passing through the Valley of Contentment: 'From sorrow he turneth
to bliss, from anguish to joy. His grief and mourning yield to
delight and rapture... The wayfarer in this Valley may dwell upon
the dust, yet inwardly they are throned in the heights of mystic
meaning; they eat of the endless bounties of inner significance,
and drink of the delicate wines of the spirit.'
Thomas Breakwell, poor, alone, weak
and emaciated by his illness, nevertheless felt intensely what it
was to traverse this Valley: 'and thou wilt loose thyself from all
things else, and bind thyself to Him, and throw thy life down in
His path, and cast thy soul away.' Was not this very sacrifice what
Thomas was in fact seeking when he wrote to 'Abdu'l-Baha,
expressing his wish to be a martyr? Did he not see his impending
death as just such a sacrificial act? Can one imagine a more
fervent lover than this young man who, by now in the grip of an
incurable illness, thanked his Lord for his condition, and asked
to be allowed to drink more deeply of the wine of suffering?
The Valley of Wonderment is also one of perplexity where the
True Believer 'seeth the shape of wealth as poverty itself, and the
essence of freedom as sheer
impotence. Now he is struck dumb with the beauty of the
All-Glorious; again he is wearied out with his own life. How many
a mystic tree hath this whirlwind of wonderment snatched by the
roots', asks Baha'u'llah, and 'how many a soul hath it exhausted?'
But Thomas remained firm.
Hippolyte Dreyfus, who visited Thomas in hospital, was
astonished by his indomitable spirit. 'After scaling the high
summits of wonderment the wayfarer cometh to the Valley of True
Poverty and Absolute Nothingness. This station is the dying from
self and the living in God ... being poor in the things of the
created world, rich in the things of God's world. For when the true
lover and devoted friend reacheth to the presence of the Beloved,
the sparkling beauty of the Loved One and the fire of the lover's
heart will kindle a
blaze and burn away all veils... Yea, all that he hath, from heart
to skin, will be set aflame, so that nothing will remain save the
Thomas Breakwell departed this life a poor man, with not even
enough to purchase a plot of earth for the repose of his earthly
remains. Though his body may be lost in a common grave in this
world, his soul nevertheless shines on high, and tastes the glory
and joy of those who have 'attained the Presence of God'. Such was
his life, and such could be that of all true believers, of whom
Thomas Breakwell is surely an illustrious example.
[33 For a discussion of the attributes and station of the true
believer, see Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Baha'u'llah,
Volume One: Baghdad 1853-63, rev. ed. (Oxford: George Ronald,
1976), pp. 238-9, 243.]
BREAKWELL'S LUMINOUS STATION
Thomas Breakwell possessed great spiritual capacity, and was
courageous in the way he manifested it. These two
factors determine the spiritual rank and station which each soul
Yet there is, it would seem, a very important difference.
One's spiritual station is conferred by God, and is entirely
dependent on His grace. One may lose it, but one cannot 'earn' it.
Rank is a degree of spiritual development which the individual
acquires by his or her own efforts, and which distinguishes him or
her from any other believer.
Thomas Breakwell's rank is much less of a mystery to us than
his station. Consider how baffling it may at first seem when we
read that Shoghi Effendi describes George Townshend, John Esslemont
and Thomas Breakwell as being equal in rank. On the other hand,
Thomas Breakwell appears to have been endowed by God with an
station, higher than that of any other Western believer.
What is the spiritual nature of this station? A close study
of the prayer of visitation revealed by 'Abdu'l-Baha in honour of
Thomas Breakwell perhaps allows us a glimpse of its greatness.
When we refer to the original Arabic language of this Tablet,
and consider some of the precise terminology which the Master
employs, we see that Thomas Breakwell was one of those rare souls
who was able to attain the ultimate goal of his life (fa'izin). The
greatness of this goal is clearly revealed in the Arabic version,
though it is perhaps not so apparent in either the French or
English translations, as neither of those languages contains words
or phrases which can convey the equivalent meanings and allusions
of the Arabic. 'Abdu'l-Baha
writes, literally: 'Thou hast forsaken the world of Nasut and
ascended to that of Malakut, and by the grace of God thou hast
attained to Lahut and reached the threshold (atabat) of the Lord
[34 See Baha'u'llah, op cit., pp. 63-4. For a discussion of the
hierarchy of the worlds of God, see Moojan Momen, 'Relativism: A
Basis for Baha'i metaphysics', in Moojan Momen (ed), Studies in the
Babi and Baha'i Religions, vol. 5: Studies in Honor of the Late
Hasan M. Balyuzi (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1988), pp. 185-217.]
The world of Lahut may be described as the realm of the Divine
Will or Logos where the divine names and attributes of God are
first revealed. Here the divine Manifestations exist in a condition
of complete union with the Essence of god. In Baha'i terminology
this is sometimes referred to as 'The Heavenly Court', or the
'All-Glorious Horizon'. The realm of Jabarut is where these
manifestations of God's Will acquire their individual existence,
the form in which they become known among us, revealing God's
actions and decrees in each dispensation.
Then comes the realm of Malakut, which is the world of the
soul. In the Baha'i scriptures this is also known as the Kingdom
of Abha, where, beyond physical death, the human soul pursues
spiritual development on the infinite journey toward God. The world
of Malakut is arranged in a hierarchy according to the spiritual
development of the souls and their station.
According to this hierarchy of the worlds of God, we may
describe the spiritual journey of Thomas Breakwell as having left
the world of Nasut (the plane of the human condition), to rise,
first of all, to the world of Malakut, the world of the soul, and
by a special grace, reach the world of Lahut, the world of Divinity
where he attained the sacred Threshold of the Lord of Jabarut.
This suggests that Thomas Breakwell attained the presence of
the divine Manifestation (Baha'u'llah), in that station of
splendour and power, distinct from His station in the world of
Malakut. For the world of Jabarut is, at the same time, the world
of the Divine Will and also the World of the Manifestation.
So Thomas Breakwell, without having entered into the heart of
the world of the divine Manifestation, attained that point which
marks its frontier, the Tree of Tuba (as it is in the original
Arabic), also called the Sadratu'l-Muntaha (the name given to the
last tree of an oasis before the desert begins), beyond which he
caught sight of the world of the Manifestation of God and the Face
of God, as is promised in the Qur'an. This is the highest station
to which a human being can attain.
In a Tablet which Baha'u'llah devotes to the qualities and
station of the 'true believer', this meeting is described in the
following manner: 'Such a man hath attained the knowledge of the
station of Him Who is "at the distance of two bows", Who standeth
beyond the Sadratu'l-Muntaha.'
[35 Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, comp.
and trans. Shoghi Effendi, rev. ed. (London: Baha'i Publishing
Trust, 1978), XXIX, p. 70.]
In the Qur'an, the Sadratu'l-Muntaha refers to the point which
marks the inaccessibility of God.
This Tablet also furnishes details of the conditions of life
in the next world, the life of those souls who have attained the
highest level of spiritual being. They are entrusted with a special
service which plunges them into such extremes of joy that they sing
the praises of God and chant verses which rain down upon the whole
of creation. Their sustenance is the
contemplation of the Beauty of the Manifestation.
Thus it was that Thomas Breakwell received the grace of God,
Who granted him, above and beyond the spiritual rank achieved
through his own efforts, the exalted station of one of 'His close
companions'. In final tribute, in the words of 'Abdu'l-Baha Who
wrote so definitively of Thomas, 'Thy Lord hath verily singled thee
out for His love.'
[36 'Abdu'l-Baha, Selections, 158.10, p. 198.]