History of the Baha’i Faith in Portland

November 25 marks the 105th anniversary of an organized Baha’i community in Portland. Read on to learn more about the early history of the Baha’i Faith in Portland…

The nine elected members of the Portland Spiritual Assembly at the time of incorporation (1939) are shown here.

The Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Portland, Oregon incorporated on April 5, 1939 as a “non-profit” for religious activity. This was done in response to a goal set by Shoghi Effendi, (great-grandson of Baha’u’llah and Guardian of the Baha’i Faith) for local spiritual assemblies in communities greater than 15 members to establish themselves as legal entities capable of making contracts and owning property. A copy of the Portland Assembly’s incorporation papers was displayed by Shoghi Effendi on a kiosk placed just outside the room that had been occupied by Bahá’u’lláh at the Mansion of Bahji. Since Bahá’ís preserve that Mansion as decorated by Shoghi Effendi, that copy will remain as it is for centuries to come.

There has been an entity known as the Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Portland, Oregon since November 25, 1906 when 13 newly declared Baha’is met and signed a joint declaration letter to Abdu’l-Baha, which was hand-delivered by J.H. Fisk to Abdu’l-Baha while on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Interestingly He replied on June 14, 1907 recognizing the formation of the Spiritual Assembly in Portland, OR listing 18 names, not all the same as those who had signed the letter the previous November.

The first “Spiritual Assembly” originated out of public meetings at the Auditorium on 3rd and Taylor in downtown Portland organized by “Colonel” Nathan Ward Fitz-Gerald in March 1906. Colonel Fitz-Gerald was born on March 4, 1844 in Ripley County, Indiana. His mother was a devoted Millerite, a denomination of Christians who believed that according to Biblical prophecies as interpreted by William Miller, Christ would return in the year 1844. Thus, during the time he was in the womb of his mother, her thoughts were fervently centered on the subject of the coming of the Lord due at approximately the same time as her baby boy. Fitz-Gerald himself attributes his “mental make-up” to his mother’s passionate expectation during his gestation. Some of his earliest memories are of sitting at her knees hearing her speak of the promised Millennium when God would reign on earth turning it into Paradise.[1]

Fitz-Gerald served in the Union Army for about 3 months in 1864, just long enough apparently to later claim the rank of “Colonel.” Following his military service he attended Indiana University and then turned to study for the ministry. He became enamored of the calculations of an English Biblical scholar, Dr. John Cumming, that Christ would return in June 1869. From 1866, Fitz-Gerald actively taught Christians to expect Christ’s return on that date, but when that month came and went with no visible results, he became disillusioned and turned agnostic for the next 25 years. He changed his career to law, practicing in Washington D.C. with Colonel Robert Ingersoll, the most famous agnostic in the United States during the nineteenth century. He even lectured on behalf of agnosticism. This did not satisfy the spiritual yearnings of his soul, and after suffering poverty and the loss of family and friends through death and estrangement, particular the death of one of his three daughters at the tender age of 18, he directed his attention once again to spiritual matters and began investigating every sect, denomination, cult, or “ism” he could find. By January 1902, he came across the Bahá’í Faith and began regularly attending meetings organized by Charles Mason Remey. On April 29, 1902, he received a tablet from Abdu’l-Bahá strongly encouraging him to teach the Bahá’í Faith:

As to thee, strengthen thou thy back to spread that Spirit and diffuse that Light and arise to serve the Cause of God in His vineyard….Truly I say unto thee, if thou be steadfast in this Cause and arise with all thy power to promote the Word in those parts, and if thou render thine utmost efforts in breathing the Spirit of Life into the hearts of the righteous, thou wilt find thyself assisted by the angels of heaven and the hosts of the Supreme Concourse… [2]

Since Fitz-Gerald believed ‘Abdul-Bahá was the Lord returned to the earth as promised by Christ, he surely must have been thrilled at receiving such a message. He immediately arose and began lecturing on the Bahá’í Faith in Baltimore. Sometime in 1904, he moved to Tacoma, Washington. Later that year or early in 1905, he went on pilgrimage and though there is no known writing from him of that experience, he did receive a second tablet from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá after his return:

In sooth, thou hast arisen to perform that which thou didst promise! Blessed shall be thy condition. … Remember it [your pilgrimage] always, and arise to proclaim the Divine Teachings, explaining the proofs and arguments, and bearing the glad tidings and promises of this Manifestation: and always be assured that the Divine Confirmations will continuously reach thee, so that thou mayest be the cause of the lighting of the candle, of the Love of God, in that land of America …[3]

He indeed came back from his pilgrimage on fire with the love of his Lord. He boldly requested an audience with the Tacoma Minister’s Alliance. In April 1905 he was granted 15 minutes to speak to a gathering of 70 ministers to share the “great and glorious news of the fulfillment of prophecy and establishment of God’s Kingdom.” Stony-faced they listened, cutting him off at exactly 15 minutes after he started with no response to this great announcement. Undaunted, Fitz-Gerald gave up his job and began lecturing full-time throughout the state of Washington and the San Francisco Bay area, giving 188 lectures in only 7 months, a pace of almost a lecture per day. For many of these lectures, he paid to rent lecture halls out of his own funds, but as he became known, he received many invitations to speak at churches, societies, and clubs.

He also found time to publish a book, The New Revelation: Its Marvelous Message, which he distributed at his talks. It was a collection of newspaper articles, transcription of talks by Isabella Brittingham and himself, a few translations of the Hidden Words by Bahá’u’lláh, basically representing everything Fitz-Gerald knew about the Faith at the time. He dedicated it to his mother. In November 1905, he also started what was intended to be a periodical, The Old and New, but he never got around to publishing a second issue. Of greatest interest in that one issue was the text of his address to the ministers of Tacoma. It included advertisements for various healing products, as well as his own book. Perhaps the lapse in publishing a second issue resulted from his correspondence with Bahá’ís in Chicago to whom he had requested financial support for the publication. They wrote back a loving letter, but noted that they had recently received a tablet from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on the inadvisability of sending out published material without prior approval. [4]

This is the building where Fitz-Gerald gave his lectures on the Baha'i Faith.

In March 1906, Fitz-Gerald came to Portland, Oregon to proclaim the new message. He brought with him, an enthusiastic new convert to the Faith he had taught in Seattle, Hyde Dunn. Years later, Hyde and his wife Clara moved to the Antipodes and founded the Bahá’í communities of Australia and New Zealand. Their services and character led them to be named by the Guardian as Hands of the Cause of God. Fitz-Gerald rented an auditorium on the fourth story of building at 3rd and Taylor.

He managed to interest the Oregonian newspaper to publish articles on his public meetings proclaiming the Return of Christ, the first appearing on the Friday before the first meeting held on Sunday, March 11, 1906. In those days, newspapers were the primary, if not the only source of news, and anything and everything was reported. The daily papers were as large, if not larger than today’s Sunday editions. There was no television or radio, and few venues of entertainment. Public lectures were a very popular form of entertainment for the educated classes, and so a lecture on the provocative subject of the appearance of the Messiah in the Middle East, particularly when proclaimed by one well-known as a former advocate of agnosticism, engendered a great deal of curiosity. Who would not be curious to hear a free lecture as described by the article in the Oregonian under the headline “Calls Him Messiah” as follows:

To know that Christ has returned to earth in exact accordance with the prophecies of the Bible, to have met, talked and supped with him, is what Colonel Nathan Ward Fitzgerald, poet, author and one-time agnostic, who is now in Portland, claims he has done, and he has come here to bring the message of the Master’s presence in the City of Acca, Palestine. Colonel Fitzgerald visited the Orient at the invitation of Baha Ulla [sic], to whom he had written for information concerning Bahaism. When he came into the presence of the man who has 5,000,000 followers in the world today he says he knew that the Messiah had come. He will give his message to Portland Sunday afternoon in the Auditorium on Third street. There is no charge – not even a collection. The speaker claims he has been inspired with the message of the Master and it is his mission to give it to all who will hear.
Oregonian, March 9, 1906, p. 5

The venue was packed, and on the following Monday, the Oregonian published a lengthy article on the lecture under the headline, “Son of Bahai Ulla [sic]” that described the audience and its reaction, or rather lack of reaction to the message proclaimed by Fitz Gerald, complimented him on his ability as a speaker, and re-stated his message for the reading public as follows:

The story of the new Christ which Colonel Nathan Ward Fitz Gerald told to a capacity audience at the Third Street Auditorium yesterday afternoon was received quietly, earnestly, but without demonstration. The large gathering was composed of that class of citizens who are searchers or seekers after the new, the unknown. They listened politely, giving most courteous and significant attention to every word which fell from the lips of the gifted lecturer, but gave no outward indication of the impression the message of the new revelation made upon them.

Colonel Fitz Gerald is a good speaker. Nature has endowed him with a commanding appearance and an eloquent tongue. He is using both in the interests of the new Messiah, who, he claims, is now on earth and whom he declares he has seen and communed with. The Bible has been one of the principal textbooks in the finished education of theis man, and he used it as a King does a scepter during his address.

The story which he told is one to delight the heart of the novelist. It made one wonder if the Polish novelist might not follow his “Quo Vadis?” with another equally impressive and wonderful tale of that same Christ come to earth again. Colonel Fitz Gerald, however, did not attempt to picture the alleged Messiah in lurid tones and shades. He was deeply earnest in his conviction that the Lord was present in the person of the son of Bahal Ulla [sic], now in the City of Acca, Syria. He professed to having led a varied life himself, having been raised in a Catholic family, converted to Protestantism and entering its ministry. This he left, feeling that the prophecies of the Bible were not to be substantiated, and became a pronounced agnostic. It was as an unbeliever and scoffer of things divine that he began an investigation of the man at Acca, who was drawing followers to the number of millions by some strange power. He wrote directly to the alleged Messiah, and after a lengthy correspondence he was invited to come to Acca, which he did. Once in the presence of him whom Christians, Jews, Mohammedan, Buddhists, Confucians and all other sects in Acca acknowledge as Christ, Colonel Fitz Gerald declares that he was instantly changed into a believer; that he know the Lord had come to his people, and that life had a new meaning for him after that.

He based his assertions on the statements of historians and all the prophecies of the Bible, wherein it is told 72 times the manner of the Lord’s return to earth. ‘This kingdom will swallow up all other kingdoms, or religions of the earth,’ he said, and it is for every man who has bowed his head or bent his knee in any kind of worship.’[sic]

The new Lord is said to have been born May 23, 1844, the day on which the Millerites predicted the millennium. ‘They had the date right,’ said the lecturer, ‘but not the time or place. The father of the newly accepted Christ was Bahal Ulla[sic], who was the early manifestation of God, the father. His coming was heralded by a descendant of Mohammed, who according to his own prophecy, was crucified seven years after he began to proclaim the coming of Christ. The new Christ does not proclaim himself as such, but modestly calls himself a servant of God, but there is that about him,’ declared Colonel Fitz Gerald, ‘which convinces all who come into his presence that there is no doubt of his genuineness.’[5]

In view of the fact that the doors had to be closed on the crowd and that many were turned away who desired to hear the lecture, Colonel Fitz Gerald will probably repeat it before leaving Portland. He is also scheduled to give lectures on Colonel Robert Ingersoll, whose law partner he once was and an illustrated one on Persia.[6]

Oregonian, March 12, 1906, p. 13

Fitz-Gerald presented two more lectures in the same venue over the next two Sundays, each followed by Oregonian articles on the following Mondays (p.3 on 3/19/1906, and p.9 on 3/26/1906). Astounding to present day readers, newspapers prior to the mid-twentieth century considered Sunday sermons and public lectures to be newsworthy, and articles on Fitz-Gerald’s lectures appear on pages containing detailed reports on the sermons given in various churches on the previous day. The article on the third meeting reported that the audience filled the auditorium as it had the previous two lectures, and that some in the audience this time tried to engage in argument over prophecies with the speaker, who “did not seem inclined to argue the question with them.”

At the meetings he organized in the Pacific Northwest, Fitz-Gerald provided postcards pre-addressed to the House of Spirituality in Chicago, upon which persons interested in learning more of the Bahá’í Faith could make their inquiries. These postcards from the Pacific Northwest began pouring into the mail for the Bahá’ís in Chicago. Inquiries from Portland numbered about sixty. The task of following up and contacting all these interested souls on the far west side of the continent fell to Thornton Chase, the first American believer. He was in a unique position to do so, since his work as a salesman gave him some latitude to arrange business travel that would allow him to serve in spreading the Faith as well. He was not able to arrange travel to Portland until the fall of 1906. Early in November he wrote to the House of Spirituality in Chicago that he had been able to find about 20 “good ones” in Portland among those who had sent these postcards, and had arranged meetings to explain what it meant to be a Bahá’í and how to organize a community. The new believers in Portland were excited to find out that a Holy Day known as the Day of the Covenant was coming up on November 25th, and they decided it would be an auspicious day on which to organize the believers in Portland into a community. They met in the law offices of J.H. Fisk to compose and sign the letter described at the beginning of this article. From that day to the present there has always been a strong community of believers in Portland, which makes it one of the oldest existing Bahá’í communities in the world.

[1] Robert H. Stockman, The Bahá’í Faith in America, Vol. 2, p. 194

[2] Translated by Ali Kuli Khan and published in Tablets of ‘Abdul-Bahá Abbas, Vol. 1, pp.197-8

[3] Robert H. Stockman, The Bahá’í Faith in America, Vol. 2, p. 196

[4] Ibid., pp. 197-8

[5] The statements attributed to Fitz Gerald by this reporter show the confusion many early believers, particularly those in America had over the station of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, who indeed, as acknowledged in the lecture, never claimed to have a rank other than a “servant” of God. It was Baha’u’llah who had the station of the Manifestation of God who revealed the Word of God, not His son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.

[6] Fitz Gerald incongruously offered these lectures on a famous agnostic and travelogue probably as a way to help fund his travels by charging admission.