Almost 100 years ago, on the night of Friday 2 December 1921, an English woman boarded a train in Port Said, Egypt, to make the 200-mile journey along the Mediterranean coast to Haifa. As Ethel Jenner Rosenberg settled into her first class carriage, she hoped perhaps to sleep a little before an eagerly anticipated reunion that was ahead of her— a reunion with Abdu’l-Baha.
She had last seen the Master some nine years previously in London. There, as a result of His presence, thousands of people had been touched by the light of the Baha’i teachings. It was a far cry from those early days when she and Mrs. Thornburgh-Cropper had been the only two women in England to have embraced the Cause of Baha’u’llah. In the intervening years of the Great War, Ethel had struggled on heroically. As bombs rained down upon London, she strove to share her deep knowledge of the new Revelation with a handful of souls who longed to set their sights on the coming of a universal peace. Although Abdu’l-Baha’s life had been threatened by Ottoman forces, and her own fragile health almost prevented her from carrying on, she had maintained her profound spiritual connection with the Master. Now the prospect of attaining His incomparable presence was but one night’s train journey away.
Around midnight, a passport officer entered Ethel’s carriage. Discovering that she was travelling to Haifa, he asked her where she was intending to stay in the city.
“With Sir Abdu’l-Baha,” she replied.
“Oh,” the young man exclaimed, “The one who has just died!”
Ethel was stunned. She had not been told any such thing by the Baha’is with whom she had just spent time in Port Said. Seeing her distress, the officer attempted to play down the news. “It may be a false rumour, but I was told he had died on Monday. I hope, Madam, this has not been a great shock to you?”
“Of course, it is a tremendous shock.”
The official left the carriage. Unable to comprehend what she had just heard, Ethel followed him down the train corridor and called him back to ask him if he had known Abdu’l-Baha.
“He was one of my greatest friends,” was the heartfelt response.
As the train rumbled through the night, Ethel allowed herself to shed a tear. And yet, she wrote in her diary, that she somehow felt that Abdu’l-Baha was putting His arm around her to comfort her. The following morning, as the train pulled into Haifa, she caught a glimpse of the expression on the face of Dr. Lutfullah Hakim, who was there to meet her. She knew then that the Master was no longer alive.
In the days that followed, Ethel wrote numerous letters to Baha’i friends at home and in North America, regretting being unable to “hear his dear, dear voice once more.” But after making her first visit to His Shrine, she felt a “deep and abiding joy.” “When we think of his great happiness and freedom,” she wrote, “we cannot help but be happy can we?”
Ethel Jenner Rosenberg had been deeply trusted by the Master. While in Paris, on 19 November 1911, it was she who He explicitly instructed to form a committee back home to begin administering the funds, activities and publishing efforts of the nascent Baha’i community. During His stay in London, again it was Ethel who had taken on the task of dealing with the endless succession of visitors that thronged to meet Him, making sure all were given the opportunity. “I can see Miss Ethel Rosenberg, that devoted follower, ever practical and busy with an interview book in her hand, taking down names and times for appointments,” remembered Lady Blomfield’s daughter Mary.
Most importantly, perhaps, Ethel had played an important role in helping Abdu’l-Baha’s early devotees understand the new Revelation and particularly His station. “Ethel Rosenberg was able to give the English accurate teaching,” recalled one of them. “She had a very clear brain and the English Baha’is owe a great deal to her as she kept to the words of Abdu’l-Baha and did not fall back into the error of thinking Him the Divine Manifestation as some did in those days.” Ethel’s friend Claudia Coles wrote, “From the first moment of her belief in the Glory of God manifest, to her last breath, her faith and the clarity of her teachings, blessed those who heard her.”
But now, with the Master gone, Ethel Rosenberg’ services were far from over. In February 1922, Shoghi Effendi—named the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith in his Grandfather’s Will and Testament—called together a number of the most capable and experienced Bahá’ís to support him and consult about the future. Ethel was amongst them. The outcome of these discussions was the Guardian’s instruction that they return home to lay the foundations for the Baha’i Administrative Order. Ethel received specific orders to call an election for a spiritual assembly in London that would, within a year, evolve into the National Spiritual Assembly of the British Isles, which met for the first time on Saturday 13 October 1923, at her home in Kensington.
After more than two decades of devotion to the Cause of Baha’u’llah, Ethel had little difficulty in accepting and accommodating the vision of the Guardian. She was rewarded once again, in 1926, at the age of 68, when he called upon her to serve him as a secretary. During this, her final stay in the Holy Land, she was able to render yet another signal service, assisting Shoghi Effendi in the preparation of his masterly English translation of The Hidden Words. To this day, the title page of this much-loved book contains the words: Translated by Shoghi Effendi with the assistance of some English friends.
As Ethel’s physical powers declined in the final years of her life, “the love of Shoghi Effendi comforted her heart,” wrote Claudia Coles. And when Ethel passed away on 17 November 1930, Shoghi Effendi cabled:
DEEPLY GRIEVED PASSING ROSENBERG ENGLAND’S OUTSTANDING BAHA’I PIONEER WORKER. MEMORY HER GLORIOUS SERVICE WILL NEVER DIE.
Abdu’l-Baha had once told Ethel that she was “accepted in the Kingdom.” Finally, the reunion she had anticipated in December 1921 was about to take place.