Review: Agnes Alexander – Hand of the Cause of God, by Earl Redman and Duane Troxel, published by George Ronald, Oxford, 2022, 486 pages (including photos), available in paper and digital formats from www.grbooks.com and online booksellers. Review by Paul Hanley.
One of the remarkable features of the Bahá’í Faith is the extraordinary role played by women in its establishment and spread throughout the world. Some of these women, such as the Iranian poet Táhirih, lived lives charged with drama. One of the faith’s first adherents, Táhirih was strangled to death in 1852 for fearlessly championing the emancipation of women, a struggle at the forefront of the news in Iran even today.
Though less dramatic, the life of Miss Agnes Alexander, who brought the Bahá’í Faith to Hawai’i in 1901, is nonetheless remarkable. The subject of a recent biography by Earl Redman and Duane Troxel, her story shows how an ordinary person can—through perseverance—accomplish extraordinary things. All but singlehandedly, this humble heroine introduced a new faith to three nations—Hawai’i, Japan, and Korea. Page after page, the biography meticulously documents 70 years of selfless, indefatigable service.
Agnes was born in Hawai’i in 1875. In 1900 while traveling in Europe she overheard a conversation about an obscure new religion. She soon embraced the Bahá’í cause and a year later returned to Hawaii to establish its Bahá’í community.
In certain respects, Agnes was following in the footsteps of her ancestors, the Baldwins and Alexanders, Christian missionaries who had come to Hawaii in the 1830s to help establish the Christian Faith. By 1875, descendants of the missionaries had become the business elite of Hawaii and would soon conspire to overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy. Unlike her ancestors, Agnes was a proponent of racial amity and cultural and religious diversity. Despite her privileged birth, she lived in the simplest of circumstances often moving from place to place, with no home of her own, to promote her adopted faith.
Overcoming the indifference and occasional opposition of her family, she slowly brought a small handful into the faith, and by 1911 the first Bahá’í Assembly was formed in Honolulu. Although the Bahá’í teachings were presented to Queen Lili’uokalani in 1915, the first native Hawaiian, Mary Fantom, did not become a Bahá’í until 1923. Agnes and Mary would be friends for life, ultimately living in the same elder care home in Honolulu.
Encouraged by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, head of the faith after the passing of its founder Bahá’u’lláh in 1892, Agnes moved to Japan in 1915. Unable to speak Japanese, she built friendships through Esperanto language groups and with blind students. It would take 18 years to attract enough people to the faith to elect the first Bahá’í institution, the Spiritual Assembly of Tokyo in 1932, and another 25 years to build up enough local Bahá’í communities throughout the country to elect the first National Spiritual Assembly.
Her perseverance in sharing her faith, one to one, over several decades was key to its slow but steady development. The authors share the story of Michitoshi Zenimoto, a survivor of the Hiroshima blast who met Agnes in 1952. At university he studied Christian theology but had questions: Why do Christians kill Christians in war? Is there no salvation for his Buddhist grandparents? He was harshly rebuked by his teacher for asking such a question. When he met Agnes, she explained the basic Bahá’í concepts of the unity of humankind and religions. Michitoshi was intrigued.
“If you are interested in Bahá’í, I will come to teach you,” she said. “What time should I come?” Michitoshi, in his mind, wanted to say, “come once a week,” but his heart controlled his mouth and the words he spoke were, “Every day, please.” So, for 100 consecutive days…Agnes went to the University and talked with Michitoshi about the Bahá’í Faith. Even one day when Kyoto was covered with a foot of snow and was so cold the trains stopped running, she came. Michitoshi didn’t think that the 78-year-old Agnes would come, but when he arrived at the University, Agnes was there waiting for him.
She then traveled to Hiroshima to meet and lovingly reassure Michitoshi’s family.
Agnes was also the first Bahá’í to visit Korea and among the early teachers of the faith in China. Her service was not restricted to Asia Pacific, however. While traveling through Germany in 1937 to visit Bahá’í communities at the request of the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, Shoghi Effendi, the Nazi government banned the Bahá’í religion. Agnes was not able to fulfill the Guardian’s request until 1959, when at 84 she visited every Bahá’í group in the country. In her later years, she traveled extensively in Europe, Australia, Asia, and the Pacific.
Agnes returned to Hawai’i frequently to bolster its Bahá’í community. It was not until 1964 that sufficient membership was built up throughout the islands for the Bahá’í community to elect its first National Spiritual Assembly. At the time of its formation, her role was recognized by then Governor John Burns.
The authors of Agnes’s biography note that one short paragraph written by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in 1916, in a letter detailing his plan for the global expansion of the Bahá’í faith, prompted them to write the book. Although by 1916 Agnes had only attracted a few people to the Bahá’í Faith in Hawai’i and a single individual in Japan, yet ‘Abdu’l-Baha especially praised her:
At this time, in the Hawaiian Islands, through the efforts of Miss Alexander, a number of souls have reached the shore of the sea of faith! Consider ye, what happiness, what joy is this! I declare by the Lord of Hosts that had this respected daughter founded an empire, that empire would not have been so great! For this sovereignty is eternal sovereignty and this glory is everlasting glory.
It had taken more than 1500 years for the Christian Faith to reach Japan and 1800 years to reach Hawai’i. Through the efforts of Agnes Alexander, the Bahá’í message reached Hawai’i less than 10 years after the passing of Baha’u’llah, and Japan after just 22 years. ‘Abdu’l-Baha evidently saw the future. Today, through the efforts of spiritual pioneers like Agnes Alexander, the Bahá’í faith is the second most widespread religion in the world
In 1955, Agnes Alexander was named a “Hand of the Cause of God” by the Guardian. The Hands of the Cause were the small group of Bahá’ís at the forefront of the global expansion of the faith. After the passing of Shoghi Effendi in 1957, Agnes joined the other Hands in arranging for the election of the Universal House of Justice, the governing council of the international Bahá’í community. She continued her service uninterrupted until, at the age of 90, she broke her leg and was unable to walk for the remaining five years of her life.
Agnes Alexander passed away in Honolulu in 1971 and is buried at Kawaiahao Church amidst her missionary forebearers. Consistent with her humble demeanor in life, her unpretentious grave offers no indication that this extraordinary ordinary woman had achieved ‘eternal sovereignty’ and ‘everlasting glory’.