THE FIRST OBLIGATION
LADY BLOMFIELD AND THE SAVE THE CHILDREN FUND
This article was written by Rob
Weinberg for the UK Baháí Centenary 1998-1999 and was first
published on the now-defunct website for that project. We are sharing it here
to help stop it slipping into obcurity and to further memorialise a remarkable
woman, the first Irish person of her gender to accept the
The issues of social progress and
development have been central to the activities of Bahá'í
communities since the earliest days of the Faith in Europe, however, it was not
untilthe 1920s that Bahá'u'lláh's ground-breaking teachings
concerning the education and protection of children both boys and girls,
received particular attention, as the plight of millions of children, suffering
in the aftermath of the Great War, became widely known and deplored. At the
forefront of an international campaign to rally the world's most influential
thinkers and ordinary people everywhere to assist these children, was a
prominent Bahá'í woman, Lady Blomfield. Encouraged by
'Abdu'l-Bahá, she ensured that the Bahá'í teachings were
deeply rooted in the consciousness of the founders of the Save the Children
Fund. 'Abdu'l-Bahá Himself addressed the Fund's founders through tablets
to Lady Blomfield and offered them specific encouragement and advice about
their work. This paper explores the relationship between the
Bahá'í Faith and the Save the Children Fund - through the
activities of Lady Blomfield - and the impact which the Bahá'í
teachings had on its early development.
Sara Louisa, Lady Blomfield - whom
'Abdu'l-Bahá named Sitarih (meaning Star) - is best known to the
Bahá'í orld as the distinguished, society hostess who generously
offered up her London home to Abdul-Bahá on His two visits
to Britain between 1911 and 1913. Her seminal account of' those days and the
early history of the Bahá'í Faith, The Chosen
Highway1 has remained a popular inspirational text for the
past fifty years. However, while many believers of her generation occupied
themselves primarily with purely spiritual concerns or made early attempts at
organising the Bahá'í movement, Lady Blomfield chose to express
her understanding of Bahá'u'lláh's Revelation by giving priority
to important social causes. Not only was she a promoter and defender of' the
Cause in the social circles she frequented but, beyond the emerging community
of Bahá'u'lláh's followers, she became a fearless supporter and
protector of' the rights of women, children, prisoners and animals, a defender
of the oppressed and an ardent promoter of peace and inter-religious
Lady Blomfield's acceptance of the Bahá'í
Teachings in 1907 marked the turning point in a lifelong quest for spiritual
truth, a process set in motion by her childhood experiences in Ireland of
religious conflict between a Catholic father and Protestant mother - a search
which would take her, as it did so many of her contemporaries, through a study,
of Theosophy, Eastern traditions and some of the more radical rethinkings
of-Christianity which emerged during the closing years of' the Nineteenth
Century. Yet with her acceptance of' Bahá'u'lláh came an
increased desire to see justice and equality established in the world, a
concern expressed in her selfless involvement in all manner of philanthropic
causes as well as in direct service to those in need.
When Lady Blomfield passed away, her daughter Mary Basil
Hall, who was compiling an obituary article for The
Bahá'í World 2, wrote that it seemed 'trivial
to record worldly episodes and circumstances, for she lived greatly in
spiritual spheres above ordinary existence. And yet she was so near the heart
of humanity, that she felt keenly the world's suffering, and never relaxed in
her efforts for its alleviation.' One such effort was her intimate involvement
with the founding of the Save the Children Fund. From the time of her
acceptance of Bahá'u'lláh in 1907, Lady Blomfield's services to
the Bahá'í movement were not exclusively limited to the shores of
Great Britain. She had spent invaluable time - for instance - with
'Abdu'l-Bahá in Paris and her copious notes of his many talks and
conversations formed the substance of the book, Paris
Talks 3. It was, however, on 12 February 1912, shortly after
arriving in Egypt where He had returned after His exhausting first visit to
Europe, that 'Abdu'l-Bahá addressed a letter to Lady Blomfield and
encouraged her to establish a Bahá'í centre on the shores of Lake
Within one month, she had arrived in Switzerland and
received another communication from 'Abdu'l-Bahá praising her for her
sacrificial services. 'Thou hast taken in hand a most brilliant lamp and art
erasing and dispelling the darkness of ignorance from the heart,' He wrote, 'In
every city be it Paris or London or the cities of Switzerland whereat thou
mayest arrive, turn to the Beauty of Abhá and seek confirmation from the
Holy Spirit and open thy tongue. Know thou assuredly that new significance's
will flow from thy lips! At every Hotel wherein thou are invited, go, and to
whatsoever conferences thou art summoned present thyself. The Blessed Beauty is
with thee, rest thou assured." 4 Abdu'l-Bahá clearly
recognised Lady Blomfield's capacities to inform others eloquently of' His
Father's teachings, and in His wisdom saw that her presence in Geneva would
clearly be a key to attracting many to the Bahá'í Cause.
The next few years would see the whole world embroiled in
the most terrible and bloody conflict, a war which directly affected Lady
Blomfield and her daughters as they strove to channel their love of humanity
into direct service. Lady Blomfield had witnessed first hand the disastrous,
initial stages of' the War. When the fighting had broken out, she and her
daughters were staying in Switzerland but shortly afterwards, they moved to
Paris to assist the French Red Cross in the Haden Guest Unit at the Hospital
Hotel Majestic. For Lady Blomfield, the experience was heart rending. 'Any kind
of suffering touched my mother profoundly,' recalled Mary Basil Hall, 'but the
sight of young men maimed for life, and the new and horrible experiences she
had to endure during the dressing of wounds, her mental agony reflecting their
pain, tortured her beyond words. After that first heartrending morning in the
wards, we were silent as we walked back to the Hotel d'Jena for luncheon. We
imagined ourselves unable to touch any food. But my mother's courage and
strength of mind prevailed. She said quietly: "We must eat, or we shall be
ill ourselves. Then we shall not be able to help."' 5
In March 1915, the hospital unit moved away from Paris
and the Blomfields returned to London in April. For the rest of the War, Lady
Blomfield would offer her services at several hospitals. She served on a number
of committees and kept open house for the convalescing soldiers from Australia
and New Zealand - the Anzacs. Despite the demands of these humanitarian duties,
she never neglected the sparsely attended Bahá'í meetings which
were held when and where circumstances permitted and kept in touch with the
Master and friends overseas whenever correspondence was possible.
Lady Blomfield had also watched with great interest the
unrest developing in her homeland of Ireland as well as the activities of the
militant Women's Suffrage Movement. Two hundred thousand men were under arms in
Protestant Ulster and the catholic South and the imminence of a civil war
seemed likely. Lady Blomfield sympathised with home rule for Ireland but
deplored the violence and would not speak much about it. When it came to the
behaviour of the suffragettes she initially had admired their militancy and
self'-sacrifice but later came to disapprove of their activities burning
houses, pouring corrosive acid into post boxes and destroying works of art.
However she helped the suffragettes in many ways and was appalled by the way
the government treated them. She gave over to the suffragettes a cottage on her
small estate and put them up under assumed names and disguises. The village
policeman would prowl around the house suspecting their presence but never
reported them to the authorities.
Her daughter Mary also took her mother's causes to heart.
On her presentation at court, Mary Blomfield with her sister Beatrice standing
beside her, came before the King who had been a friend of her father's, dropped
on to her knees and, according to Christabel Pankhurst, 'in a clear voice
claimed votes for women and pleaded 'Your Majesty, stop forcible feeding.' She
was rushed - as the Daily Mirror put it - from 'the Presence' which 'had
remained serene' 6. Sylvia Pankhurst later claimed that Lady Blomfield
had intimated to the Press her repudiation of what her daughter had done. 'Lady
Blomfield,' wrote Sylvia Pankhurst, 'had been enthusiastic for militancy of the
most extreme kind, so long as it was committed by other people's daughters.'
7 Whatever Lady Blomfield's true feelings about this matter, it is
apparent that she had dedicated herself to alleviating the suffering of those
whom she felt were the victims of injustice. It was a sentiment which would
find its greatest expression in the establishment of the Save the Children
The war over, Lady Blomfield saw the possibilities of
Bahá'u'lláh's, Revelation genuinely influencing the work of the
League of Nations, set up to promote international co-operation and peace from
its headquarters in Geneva. While the League had no power to enforce policies
in cases of war waged by important nations, it did achieve some success in
settling a few minor disputes between countries, rehabilitating refugees, and
solving international labour problems. She returned to Geneva and from her base
at the Hotel d'Angleterre, she wrote to 'Abdu'l-Bahá telling him of her
arrival and subsequent meetings with individuals who were working to send help
to the famine hit areas of Central and Eastern Europe.
Of particular concern was the plight of millions of'
children, now orphaned or refugees as a result of the conflict. At this point,
Lady Blomfield made friends with Eglantyne Jebb. Jebb (1876-1928) who hailed
from a distinguished scholarly family was educated at Lady Margaret Hall,
Oxford and from the age of 24 devoted herself to travelling and philanthropic
works. She and her sister - Mrs Buxton - had heard much of the terrible misery
in which the children of Central, Eastern and Southern Europe were plunged in
the aftermath of the Great War. Their solution was to establish a Fund which
would attend to the needs of these children. They appealed to the Archbishop of
Canterbury, then the free Churches, had an audience with Pope Benedict XV and
the Patriarch of' the Greek Church securing co-operation wherever they went. On
Holy Innocents' Day in both 1919 and 1920, churches throughout Europe of all
denominations collected on behalf' of' the children. Increasing numbers of
Jewish and Muslim organisations began to show interest in their work as large
numbers of children of their faiths were affected by famine and poverty.
'Abdu'l-Bahá was swift to praise the work of Jebb
and Buxton and hoped that Lady Blomfield might influence them in accepting the
Bahá'í teachings. 'My hope is that thou mayest be confirmed in
the great cause (of saving children), which is the greatest service to the
world of' mankind. For the poor children are perishing from hunger and their
condition is indeed pitiable. This is one of the evils of the war.' 8
In a letter to Blomfield, dated 11 March 1920, He wrote, 'the English Lady who
has established this committee is assuredly confirmed by the favours of' the
Kingdom. This lady, Eglantyne Jebb and her sister, Mrs Buxton are really
serving the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh and thus I beg for them
attraction to His teachings.' 9 'Abdu'l-Bahá sent two pictures
of Himself to give to the sisters and asked Lady Blomfield to say to them, 'Ye
are serving the world of mankind and the Divine Sacred Threshold. Ye are
glorified by His Holiness Bahá'u'lláh for ye are acting in
accordance with His teachings. My hope is that ye may become two resplendent
torches of the world of mankind, may serve Divine civilisation, may attain
everlasting life and may be favoured in the Divine Kingdom.' 10
A month later, on 6 June 1920,'Abdu'l-Bahd wrote to Lady
Blomfield praising God that such an 'Association for the education of destitute
children and the relief of orphans (had) been formed, in which almost every
nation and religion is represented.' 11 'My hope is that, through the
especial Graces of god, this Association would be confirmed; that it would, day
by day, progress both spiritually and materially; that, in the long run, it
would enter under the Heavenly Unicoloured Pavilion; that it would be
accommodated in the Ship of the Real Existence; that it would be protected from
every danger, and the oneness of the world of humanity may (thereby) raise
(its) Banner at the zenith of the world.' 12
Lady Blomfield thus became intimately involved with the
work of the Save the Children Fund and returning to London maintained her
friendship with Eglantync Jebb. One major contribution Blomfield made to
raising awareness of the Fund's work was the publication of a small booklet
entitled The First Obligation in which she called upon the
Bahá'ís in particular to support the Fund's work and ideals. 'The
First Obligation,' she quoted Bahá'u'lláh, 'is to strive by all
means ... to instruct the children. Endeavour with all your soul... to train
and educate all children, boys and girls alike; instruction and education are
not optional, they are definitely commanded.' 13 In terms of
organising the work of the Fund, it was suggested that there should be in every
country of the world a Committee which would gather together representative men
and women of all shades of' thought in the service of' the children and who
would undertake the practical task of collecting funds for them. The committees
had a dual duty, of collecting funds for the children of their own country as
well as for the poorest children of whatever nationality.
From the point of view of the Bahá'ís, Lady
Blomfield stated that this duty should consist not merely in giving children
food to eat, but in training them to earn food for themselves in later years by
their own works. 'Wherever there is impoverishment', Lady Blomfield wrote,
'there is a menace to child-life, and the Save the Children Fund, reinforced by
the Bahá'ís of the world, should be the Ark to carry the children
safely through this time of stress and strain.' 14 'Give to the
children a manual profession,' advised 'Abdu'l-Bahá, 'something whereby
they may be able to support themselves and others.' 15 'Children must
receive moral and physical training at the same time and (so) be protected from
temptations and vices, for upon the children of today, - whether boys or girls,
depends the moulding of the civilisation of tomorrow.' 16 'It is for
this reason that education and training of children is a SACRED OBLIGATION, and
not a matter of voluntary choice. Those who neglect this obligation shall be
held responsible and worthy of reproach in the presence of the stern Lord. This
neglect is a sin unpardonable, for without training the poor babes are
wanderers in the Sahara of ignorance. The babe, like unto a green tender
branch, will grow according to the way it is trained. If it is rightly trained,
it will grow rightly, if it is wrongly trained, the growth will be crooked and
deformed, and thus it will remain until the end of life.' 17 'Nothing
less than the happiness of every human being is the ideal for the Bahai,' wrote
Lady Blomfield,' he must not loiter by the way on the road to this ideal, he
must: 'Strive and work, work and strive, until all the regions of the earth
shall become resplendent.' He must work until the Christian virtues, often
found in individuals, shall be manifested in the Institutional, Political,
National, and International Life.' 18
The international travel-teacher Charles Mason Remey
offered to send out large numbers of the pamphlet to the Bahá'ís
in America while a friend in Geneva who was attracted to the Teachings offered
to translate it into French. Lady Blomfield firmly believed that joining the
Bahá'ís with the work of the Fund would give to the world a
practical demonstration of the Bahá'í Teachings on child
education. The Bahá'í' response is not clearly ascertainable.
While the community was not yet strong enough to provide widespread
institutional support, some individuals were no doubt moved by her
In October 1920 'Abdu'l-Bahá urged Lady Blomfield
to return to Switzerland 'to render benevolent services and become a kind
mother to these orphan children.' 19 He asked her to 'convey on my
behalf respected greetings to Miss Egiantyne and say "Thou art not serving
people, thou art serving God; thou art not taking care of the orphans, thou art
taking care of the children of God. This desire is that the Banner of Universal
Peace may be raised. This is the first of the Teachings of His Holiness
Bahá'u'lláh. I congratulate thee on this aspiration.' 20
Lady Blomfield returned to Geneva in May 1921 with Eglantyne Jebb whom she said
was greatly encouraged and strengthened in her work by the wonderful Messages
sent to her by 'Abdu'l-Bahá in His Tablets. Jcbb and Blomfield,
pondering over the Tablet in which education as well as feeding the children is
enjoined, decided to concentrate Blomfield's efforts on instituting workrooms
in connection with children's establishments where they would be taught manual
work and useful trades so that they could earn their own living. Meanwhile
these children would receive food and a small wage in return for their work.
Lady Blomfield learned of a Hungarian woman, Julie Eve Vajkai who had already
successfully started such workrooms in Budapest for the poor children who
without them would have been 'wandering the streets in summer's heat or
winter's cold, with nobody to care whether they lived or died.' 21 A
Captain Pedlow, well known for his work in Hungary with the American Red Cross
wrote to Lady Blomfield commending the workrooms there. 'Any action,' he wrote,
'which equips the young people, physically or mentally, so that they can earn
their own living, is the best means of providing a lasting benefit for the
Community. '22 Lady Blomfield established a special appeal called the
Blomfield Fund which aimed to finance the workrooms for children and other
relief' work of a constructive character.
On 23 July 1921 'Abdu'l-Bahá wrote to Lady
Blomfield in Geneva, that 'contribution, protection and care of these children
are the greatest altruism and worship, and the cause of' satisfaction to the
Most High, the Almighty; for these children have no father, no mother, no kind
nurse, no home, no clothing and food, and no ease and quiet. In every respect
they art worthy of kindness, merit help and deserve mercy and pity. The eyes of
every sensitive man are weeping and the heart of every conscientious man is
burning. 0 society, compassion! 0 concourse of' the wise, attention! 0 nobles,
benevolence! 0 wealthy people, contribution! and 0 men of ideals, manliness! So
that these helpless ones may obtain some comfort. 'On my behalf, extend utmost
affection to Miss Eglantyne Jebb, I am very pleased with her because she
strives so much and renders such service to the world of humanity.' 23
Lady Blomfield's eagerness to rally the Bahá'í community to
assist in the work of the Save the Children Fund was also manifest in an
articles she prepared for the Bahá'í magazine, Star of the West,
published in February 1924. She wrote: 'It is "an international effort to
preserve child life wherever it is menaced by economic conditions of hardship
and disaster" without political or sectarian bias. Its purpose is to save
from starvation the homeless children of central, eastern and southern Europe
and the Near East. It has saved multitudes from starvation, Christians, Muslims
and Jews, and started thousands on the path of self-support. Today it is the
only hope of many children, fatherless and motherless, who wait day after day
in the bitter cold to receive their daily ration' 24
In the first two years of the existence of the Save the
Children Fund, a million pounds was raised to care for orphans, provide food
and facilities to children's hospitals, and establish welfare centres and
clinics. Hardly was it started in England when numerous other men and women in
other countries arose to support the Cause of the World's children. Switzerland
was the first to rise to relieve the famine stricken populations. In
consultation with the Berne Committee, the Save the Children Fund discussed the
idea of creating a central rallying point in a neutral country for the
International Movement for Child Relief. The Pope made a generous contribution
which allowed the International Union of the Save the Children Fund to be
established in Geneva, thus creating a co-ordinating and networking centre for
the different national groups. The International Committee of the Red Cross
gave its patronage to the Fund and placed its delegates in war-stricken
countries at the service of the Union, who then acted as the International
Commissioners of the Fund, co-ordinating and supervising the work at the
different centres. From then on it grew into an Organisation which still
thrives today and does extensive work in the relief and protection of the
Although Eglantyne Jebb passed away in 1928, and Lady
Blomfield's international activities became more limited as old age set in, she
remained active in the work of the Save the Children Fund until shortly before
her death on the last day of 1939. In her last years she served on the Council
of the Save the Children Fund in Britain and was for a time its vice-president.
Just two months before her passing she attended a Council meeting having
offered earlier in the year to give up her seat to make way for a younger
candidate. The other Council members pressed her to remain a member until after
the Second World War. During the January 1940 Council meeting, affectionate
tribute was paid to her memory. In the March 1940 issue of the World's
Children, the official organ of the Save the Children Fund, one and a quarter
pages were dedicated to an obituary tribute to her.
With the passing of Lady Blomfield, it was written, the
Save the Children Fund was 'deprived ... of a devoted and inspiring friend.....
she gave herself to a variety of humanitarian causes with an ardour which
persisted to the last days of a long life. With a personal courage which had
led her to give active service to the movement for the enfranchisement of women
in its least popular days, and an invincible faith in the inherent good in all
men which made her oblivious of all the sundering distinctions of race and
creed and 'colour', she found deep spiritual affinity with the teaching of
Bahá'u'lláh, the Persian mystic. She remained a loyal member of
the Church of England in which she was nurtured (her husband's father was the
famous Bishop Blomfield of London), but what came to be known as the
Bahá'í movement had in her one of' its most faithful disciples.
She was proud to recall that she entertained its leader the late
'Abdu'l-Bahá during his visits to London and Paris before the Great War,
she cherished the name; 'Sitarih Khanim' (sic), by which she was known in the
community, she published many of the prophet's words in English and the
Bahá'í Centres in London and in Geneva (where she lived for many
years) owe much to her self-denying generosity... At the funeral service at
Hampstead Cemetery on January 4, the chaplain said this friend, to whom 'Jesus
was the inspiration of her life' had 'left behind her an example of
hard-working beneficence to the end of her days, a wonderful kindliness of
spirit and breadth of sympathy.' 25
The wide range of Lady Blomfield's sympathies was
expressed at her funeral by the presence of representatives of not only the
Save the Children Fund but also the Hampstead Auxiliary Fire Service (to whom
she had offered accommodation for the care of children found straying during
air raids), the Animals' Defence and Anti-Vivisection Society and the
Bahá'í community, two leaders of which read special prayers after
the Church of England service. 'Lady Blomfield', concluded the tribute, 'will
always be remembered, not only for her uncompromising devotion to the causes
which she espoused, but - on the more personal side of life - for a singularly
beautiful, deep voice in which she loved to declaim passages from her favourite
prophet and from Holy Writ, and for a warm maternal sympathy which took under
its wing all sorts and conditions of men.'26
- See Blomfield, Lady, The Chosen
Highway. London, Bahá'í Publishing Trust 1940.
- See Basil Hall, Mary, Sitárih
Khánum, a brief account of her life and work by her daughter, Mary Basil
Hall. United Kingdom Bahá'í Archives.
- See 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks.
London, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1967.
- Letter from 'Abdu'l-Bahá to Lady Blomfield, 29
March 1912, provisional translation.
- As reference 2.
- See Pankhurst, Christabel, Unshackled.
Cresett Women's Voices 1987.
- See Pankhurst, Sylvia, The Suffragette
Movement. London, Virago, 1977.
- Letter from 'Abdu'l-Bahá to Lady Blomfield, 11
March 1920, provisional translation.
- As reference 8.
- As reference 8.
- Letter from 'Abdu'l-Bahá to Lady Blomfield, 6
June 1920, provisional translation.
- As reference 11.
- See Blomfield, Lady, The First Obligation. London,
Caledonian Press, 1921.
- As reference 13.
- As reference 13.
- As reference 13.
- As reference 13.
- As reference 13.
- Letter from 'Abdu'l-Bahá to Lady Blomfield,
October 1920, provisional translation.
- As reference 19.
- As reference 13.
- As reference 13.
- Letter from 'Abdu'l-Bahá to Lady Blomfield, 23
July 1921, provisional translation.
- See Star of the West, Volume 14 Number
11, February 1924.
- See The World's Children, March 1940.
- As reference 25.