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Martha Root

by Dale E. Lehman

Appeared: 03/24/2001

1. An Unusual Girl

By most standards, prominence in a community means some combination of power and wealth. For Bahá'ís, however, prominence is measured primarily in terms of service. The elected administrators of the Bahá'í Faith may be said to be prominent people in our community, but they gain no personal power or wealth from such service. Moreover, as important as experienced and capable administrators may be, there is a far greater calling:

Teach ye the Cause of God, O people of Bahá, for God hath prescribed unto every one the duty of proclaiming His Message, and regardeth it as the most meritorious of all deeds.

(Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, CXXVIII, p. 278)

Many devote their lives to that "most meritorious of all deeds," and a few earn special distinction, their example shining like stars in the heavens. Martha Root was among the most brilliant of these stars. In her foreword to Martha Root's book Táhirih (1981, Kalimát Press), Marzieh Gail described her thus:

I looked out the plate glass window and there, hurrying past, I saw a small, female figure in a dark coat and a brown straw hat. Beneath the hat I saw the line of an indomitable jaw, and I saw that it was Martha Root, intent upon her tasks. Isolated, purposive, concentrated, she might have been all alone on the planet. I sighed, guiltily.

"It's some job, keeping up with Martha," my diary says. "Stamps fly, and wires are hot."

"Martha's method is straight-from-the-shoulder," I recorded. "She hasn't been with a person three minutes before she's given him a book or a picture. This next is an exaggeration. She'll say to him or her: 'How do you do? Here is a picture of 'Abdu'l-Bahá. I love you.'"

(p1)

This woman, this bundle of energy, had modest beginnings. She was born on August 19, 1872 to Timothy and Nancy Root in Richwood, Ohio. She had two older brothers, Clarence and Claude. Shortly after her birth, the family moved to Cambridgeboro, Pennsylvania, where her father ran a dairy farm. Martha (or Mattie, as they called her) wasn't a typical girl, however. Her interest lay in books rather than the usual domestic pursuits, and when she was 14 she earned enough money from writing to pay for a trip to Niagara Falls. She distinguished herself in high school and college, attending Oberlin College (where she designed her own program) and earning her degree from the University of Chicago in 1895.

A career in teaching soon gave way to a career in writing. In 1900 she served as the summer replacement for the society editor of the Pittsburgh Chronicle Telegraph, then in the fall worked for the Pittsburgh Dispatch. Later, she took a position writing about automobiles for the Index of Pittsburgh Life and traveled to France to report on the motor scene there. In May 1902 Martha was back in Pittsburgh, still writing automobile articles and honing her journalistic skills.

2. World Traveler

The course of her life changed in 1909 when she met Roy C. Wilhelm, who introduced her to the Bahá'í Faith and gave her some literature. Martha researched the young religion for several months, and also met with several members of the Bahá'í community, including Thorton Chase and Arthur Agnew in Chicago. Later that year, she declared her faith in Bahá'u'lláh. In September 1909, Martha wrote a detailed article on the history and teachings of the Bahá'í Faith for the Pittsburgh Post, and in 1911 she participated in the first annual Bahá'í convention in Chicago. But as with so many other American Bahá'ís of that day, the pivotal events in her life came in 1911 and 1912.

During those extraordinary months, 'Abdu'l-Bahá traveled through the U.S. and Canada, personally spreading His Father's teachings and affording the young Bahá'í community a spiritual and practical boost. Martha attended as many of these meetings as possible, and even arranged for the Master to present a talk in Pittsburgh. In that city, she was blessed by two private interviews with Him.

Energized by these meetings, Martha began to plan a world teaching trip. She set sail from New York on the first leg of this trip on January 30, 1915. After visiting a number of countries, she had planned to go to Palestine to see 'Abdu'l-Bahá and visit the Holy Places. But war had engulfed the region, which was occupied by German and Turkish troops. She wasn't permitted entry. Instead, she traveled to Egypt where she stayed for about six months and wrote newspaper articles, including a number about the plight of the thousands of Jews who had been expelled from Palestine by the Ottomans and subsequently rescued by the U.S.S. Tennessee and brought to Alexandria. Later she went to Bombay and Rangoon, then Japan, then Hawaii. She arrived in San Francisco on August 29, 1915.

What must it have been like to be with Martha Root on this trip? Some sense of it may be gained from Marzieh Gail's musings:

Her lectures were clear and plain. If embellished by literary allusions or displays of wit, I recall none of them.... As for her voice, it was not unmusical; it was flutey and clear; earnest, emphatic; very fresh and spiritual, and with none of the preacher's pear-shaped tones. Her tempo was slowish, adapted to the translator. Each word was clearly pronounced. Distinguished is the way I would describe her English speech.... Take the lecture tour she gave to the American Women's Club in Vienna. I could not help, as we went along that afternoon, contrasting her world renown with the actual humble circumstances of her daily life. "It is remarkable how Martha endures cold, and insufficient food," my diary says; she traveled steerage, third class, on crowded street cars, lived in poor rooms.... She spoke to these women entirely on the Bahá'í Cause. She told them about Táhirih, and how her death as the world's first martyr for women's rights had inspired Marianna Hainisch, mother of a President of Austria... At the end, those women flocked around her. And Martha, following her usual custom, presented the club with Dr. Esselmont's book.

(p4-6)

Martha's endurance went beyond overlooking the discomforts of frugal travel. She had developed breast cancer around the time of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's visit, and although it appeared to go into remission for some years, the cancer eventually spread. By 1921, she was in frequent pain. Moreover, her father's health was failing and she had to care for him. In spite of these trials, she continued to serve, albeit at a reduced tempo. In 1920 she had been named to the "Ideas Committee" of the Bahá'í Temple Unity, the function of which was to find ways to raise money for construction of the Bahá'í House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois. She also had decided to write a book on the Bahá'í Faith. And, of course, she was teaching. She traveled to Mexico, where there was only one Bahá'í at the time, and from there to Guatemala. She had scheduled a meeting with President Herrera, but instead she found that a political revolution had reduced him to ex-President Herrera.

3. World Citizen

Martha's father died on November 3, 1922 at the age of eighty-five. Martha herself was now 50, but with an inheritance to help pay the bills and no obligations holding her back, the time of her greatest service had arrived. She left her home town and became, in a very real sense, a citizen of the world, traveling continuously. She taught about Bahá'u'lláh throughout the U.S. and Canada, in Japan and in China. She sent 8,000 copies of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's statement on teaching the Chinese people to Bahá'ís around the world. She then taught in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, and Hong Kong. Everywhere she went, Bahá'í pioneers assisted her and benefited from her seemingly inexhaustible energy.

Next Martha traveled to South Africa, where she was afforded enthusiastic receptions wherever she went. She did several radio broadcasts there, and also took some time to study Esperanto. (Lidia Zamenhof, the daughter of Ludwig Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, would later become a Bahá'í largely as a result of her acquaintance with Martha Root.)

'Abdu'l-Bahá's passing on November 28, 1921 must have been a shock for Martha, as indeed it was for most Bahá'ís. Yet she continued to travel and teach, and achieved something not only remarkable but indeed unprecedented. Of this achievement, Marzieh Gail comments,

Although I have always taken everything Martha did for granted--she was Martha, that was enough--still I have wondered how she, to outward seeming an unnoticeable, average little woman, with no worldly credentials, ever took it into her head to approach the remote, bejewelled and glamorous Queen Marie of Rumania, daughter of the Duke of Edinburgh, granddaughter of that Victoria who, 'Abdu'l-Bahá affirms, 'was superior to all the kings of Europe....'

(p11)

However the idea came to her, Martha acted on it in characteristic fashion: when she arrived in Bucharest in 1923, she sent the Queen a copy of Esselmont's Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era. The Queen later said that the book had arrived "at an hour of dire grief." She read it cover to cover, late into the night, and two days later granted Martha an audience in the Controceni Palace. Before long, the Queen embraced the Faith of Bahá'u'lláh, becoming the first monarch to do so. Some years later, during another visit, the Queen presented Martha with a silver and gold brooch, a "family treasure." Martha sent it to Wilmette to be sold to raise funds for the House of Worship. It was bought by another Bahá'í, Willard Hatch, who then gave it to the Bahá'í International Archives.

In 1925 Martha was able to visit the Holy Land with Effie Baker and Corinne True, where they met Bahíyyih Khánum and Shoghi Effendi. Both made a deep impression on her. Her teaching travels took her to the British Isles, then to Germany, Greece, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Although cautioned by Shoghi Effendi, she went to Iran where she hoped to meet with the Sháh, Reza Khan Pahlavi, but was unable to do so. In 1930, another attempt to meet with a head of state met with difficulty when U.S. officials initially blocked her access to Emperor Hirohito of Japan. However, she was eventually able to send the Emperor some gifts and Bahá'í books.

By 1936, with the planet in the grips of a second World War, Martha was still teaching throughout Europe. But her health was failing, and soon she returned to the U.S. In 1937, she traveled again to Hawaii, China and India, then throughout Australasia, returning to Hawaii in 1939. After a lengthy illness, she passed away in Hawaii on September 28, 1939.

Shoghi Effendi called Martha Root "that archetype of Bahá'í teachers" and "the star-servant". Marzieh Gail's testimony to her is perhaps the most fitting summary of her life:

And so on and on she traveled--not young or strong, not beautiful, not rich, alone, and more than once in terrible danger--on and on, for twenty years. She had begun these journeys in response to 'Abdu'l-Bahá's mandate to America, issued in His Tablets of the Divine Plan. That was 1919. She was the first to arise, and she carried on with her work until, far from home, she stumbled and fell "in her tracks." Died September 29, 1939, in agony after months of physical torment.

That grave of hers, under a rainbow shower tree in Honolulu, is like so many Bahá'í graves that dot the planet--they are tenanted by exiles. I think of Canada's May Bolles Maxwell, far to the south in Buenos Aires; or of my father Ali-Kuli Khan, born in Káshán, buried in the capital city of the United States; or of Dr. Susan I. Moody, much-loved American, who lies in Tihrán among the people she served so long and well. The very geography of their graves expresses their devotion to Bahá'u'lláh.

(p3-4)

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