Founders and Exemplars
The figures associated with the foundation of the Faith are the Báb, who declared the new age in 1844 but was executed in 1850; Bahá’u’lláh, who despite repeated exile and imprisonment was able to develop the Báb’s new religious community into an outward-looking force; and `Abdu’l-Bahá, who took his father’s religion to new parts of the world. The lives of both the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh are exalted above those of ordinary humans, but the life of `Abdu’l-Bahá is an example of how human beings should ideally behave.
A number of the dedicated associates of `Abdu’l-Bahá, such as Martha Root and Mr. and Mrs. Gregory stand out as examples of what can be achieved. The courageous Martha Root, beginning in 1915, spent more than 20 years travelling alone around the world, organising public meetings, meeting political figures and newspaper editors, ensuring the world was aware of the new religion. In 1912 Louis Gregory, a black American of slave stock, married Louisa Mathew, a white Englishwoman from a privileged background, as a deliberate example of inter-racial unity.
The period from the declaration of the Báb in 1844 to the death of `Abdu’l-Bahá in 1921 is referred to as the Heroic Age. Although Shoghi Effendi, as Guardian of the Faith from 1921 until his death (1957), inspired and encouraged the Bahá’ís, the faith has not really had “leaders” since that time. The members of the Universal House of Justice do not have any cult of personality, and like all the elected members of Bahá’í bodies, have no special rights and privileges other than that of service. The chairmanship rotates, so no-one can be regarded as the “leader”.
While not leaders in any religious sense, many individual Bahá’ís are accomplished in their chosen field of work. Well-known Bahá’ís in recent years have included the athletes Kathy Freeman and Nelson Evora, His Highness Malietoa Tunamafili II of Samoa and the comedian Omid Djalili. The acclaimed potter, Bernard Leach, consciously united eastern and western styles in his work. The artist Mark Tobey was a Bahá’í, as was the actress Carole Lombard in her later days. The jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie was well-known as a Bahá’í. Apart from the examples of the spiritual side of their lives, all these people sought to exemplify excellence, which is cherished in the Bahá’í Writings.