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D.C. Baha'I History

The Baha'i s of Washington DC have a rich history and longstanding association with their city - read below for the exciting story.

The Baha'i Faith was established in Washington through the efforts of a woman who grew up on an estate in Princess Anne on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She was Charlotte Brittingham Dixon, descended from one of the oldest families of European settlers in New England.

She was of a spiritual nature and her search for a deeper spiritual life led, through devotions and prayers, to an extraordinary spiritual experience, in which she was given certainty of a new dispensation and a new spiritual messenger on earth. Unable to communicate this in her conservative rural surroundings, she longed to find what this new dispensation was. Moving to Chicago she continued her search and through intense prayer, came across a woman who had been studying the Baha'i teachings. Immediately she joined the study circle and then returned home to Princess Anne.

Then she set out to share this with her family, all of whom, father, brothers and sisters, became believers in this new revelation. Her brother, James Brittingham , was the first Baha'i in New York City; his wife one of the outstanding teachers in the U.S.

When in 1898 she moved to Washington, she started the first group of Baha'is there, presenting the study lessons she had attended in Chicago, sharing what she had understood and aflame with enthusiasm.

By September 1899 there were seven Baha'is in Washington. Rapidly there was new development. Mrs. Phoebe Hearst had moved to Washington and, having taken the first group of Baha'i visitors to Akka to meet the Baha'i leader, Abdu'l-Baha (son of Baha'u'llah , Founder of the Baha'i Faith), she hosted meetings at her home. A year later, in 1901, Laura Dreyfus-Barney and her mother, the well-know artist Alice Pike Barney who founded Studio House, returned to Washington from Paris, as did Charles Mason Remey , architect and scion of an old Washington family. They had become Baha'is in Paris.

Abdu'l-Baha was watching over this new community and in 1902 sent the outstanding Persian scholar, Mirza Abu'l-Fazl to Washington to guide and teach the Baha'is . He remained for three years. Hundreds came to hear him and partake of his wisdom and vision. (An exquisite portrait of him was done by Alice Pike Barney which is now in the possession of the National Portrait Gallery).

Two families came into the community who would cast a long shadow on the Baha'i activities. One, the Knoblochs were a German Lutheran family. Mother and three daughters came into the community through the quiet persuasion of the youngest, Pauline Hannon. One daughter, Alma, was the founder of the German Baha'i community, another, Fanny, took the Baha'i teachings to South Africa. Pauline was a potent instrument to bring African-Americans into the majority white Baha'i group. The purity of her intentions and the love in her heart touched them as she worked to bring the two communities, separated by segregation, together. The outstanding fruit of her endeavors was the acceptance of the teachings by the Howard University lawyer, Louis Gregory, who rose to be a Hand of the Cause, the highest spiritual rank in the Faith.

Once having accepted this new spiritual revelation, he devoted his life to traveling throughout the Southern states, reaching thousands of African-Americans, students., theologians, leaders of thought, and creating through his efforts an entire generation of African-American Baha'is . By 1908, just before he became a Baha'i , there were already fifteen black Baha'is in Washington. Some Baha'i meetings had always been integrated, increasingly all were.

The Washington group formed the first consultative body which lasted only two years but was the first in the US to include women. They held the first US summer school, in Colonial Beach, Virginia. They sent mailings everywhere, nationally and overseas, keeping news circulating around the Baha'i communities. They created the first Baha'i Sunday school; the best organized Sunday school in the country. They took part in the census of 1906, thus providing what was essentially official recognition of their existence. They counted 1280 Baha'is in the US and 74 in the DC area. The community also founded the Persian-American Educational Society, seeing it as a means of bringing together East and West and of spreading knowledge of the teachings of Baha'u'llah.

The first established leadership body was founded in 1911; Louis Gregory was a member. He was the first black American to serve on a Baha'i consultative body anywhere in North America, thus continuing the leadership that Washington often gave in the development of the American Baha'i communities.

In 1912, with the visit of the leader of the Baha'i Faith, Abdu'l-Baha , the community in Washington gained high recognition in all segments of the city. A remarkable woman, Mrs. Agnes Parsons, a prominent hostess and leader in social circles, was his host for one of his three visits to Washington.

The Baha'i community has expanded over the years since then. It is a highly diverse community, with many young professionals among its members. It is a changing one with the shifting population that characterizes present-day America.

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