Mary Virginia Thornburgh-Cropper and Ethel Jenner Rosenberg
Founding Members of the Bahá'í Community in the British Isles


In the earliest days of the Bahá'í Faith in what was then the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland, two women played the key part in establishing this new religion on its shores. From their pioneering efforts, a distinctive religious community would emerge, embracing thousands of people from all classes and from diverse racial and religious backgrounds. Their names: Mary Virginia Thornburgh-Cropper, an American divorcee resident in London, and Ethel Jenner Rosenberg, a painter from a distinguished artistic family.

Mrs Thornburgh-Cropper first heard of the Bahá'í Movement - as it was then called - in 1898 from a life-long friend of hers, the American heiress-philanthropist, Phoebe Hearst, mother of the controversial newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. Mrs Hearst told her friend that she felt this new religious teaching would be of great interest to her. Shortly afterwards, Thornburgh-Cropper would learn more of the Movement quite by chance while searching through an encyclopaedia.

Mrs Hearst decided to make a visit to 'Abdu'l-Bahá, son of the Faith's founder, who was held in the Turkish prison colony of Acre. In her usual spirit of generosity she invited others to accompany her. When Thornburgh-Cropper learnt more of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's life and sufferings, as well as the spiritual mission of his father Bahá'u'lláh, she too began arrangements to accompany the group. An uncomfortable sea journey followed but the voyage was deemed to be more than worthwhile when the pilgrims came into personal contact with 'Abdu'l-Bahá's luminous spirit and 'Christ-like' personality. 'We four visitors from the Western World,' wrote Mrs Thornburgh-Cropper, 'felt that our voyage, with all itsaccompanying inconvenience was a small price to pay for such treasure as we received from the spirit and words of the Master, whom we had crossed mountain and seas and nations to meet.' During the days spent in the company of 'Abdu'l-Bahá these early Western Bahá'ís had the unique opportunity to learn more about the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh. Mrs Thornburgh-Cropper, elevated by her profound religious experience in Acre, returned to London, where she set about conveying the teachings which she had received. It was at this time, early in 1899, that she introduced the Bahá'í Teachings to her friend, Ethel Jenner Rosenberg.

Rosenberg was a distinguished painter of portrait miniatures who had enjoyed considerable success capturing the likenesses of society figures. Many of her works had been exhibited at the Royal Academy. A deep scholar of the Bible, from her earliest childhood she had been given a sense that she lived in an age of religious renewal and that she would, in her lifetime, encounter a great teacher sent by God. Accepting the Bahá'í teachings which her friend was expounding, Rosenberg and Thornburgh-Cropper began to organise public meetings to announce their belief that humanity had entered the long-anticipated Day of God. Such a day would see the elimination of prejudice, the triumph of spiritual over materialistic values, the establishment of the equality of men and women and the recognition of the oneness of religions.

Other individuals joined them in their activities and soon Ethel Rosenberg herself would make the journey to Acre to learn directly from 'Abdu'l-Bahá. Her notes of His numerous talks and her astute observations of his extraordinary character would provide the substance of most of the Bahá'í meetings at a time when little literature about the Movement or translations of its holy scriptures were available in English. Slowly the group grew, first in London and later in two other places - Manchester and Bournemouth. Ethel Rosenberg was intimately involved with the development of the Bahá'í Movement in both these centres. She was also instrumental in introducing Sara Louisa, Lady Blomfield to the Movement. Lady Blomfield's position in society meant that the new teachings were able to reach the higher sectors of society which Rosenberg and Thornburgh-Cropper had previously been unable to contact.

The spiritual high point of these momentous early days were two visits made by 'Abdu'l-Bahá himself to Britain in 1911 and 1913 following his release from captivity. Ethel Rosenberg and Mrs Thornburgh-Cropper energetically assisted in arranging a demanding itinerary of interviews, visits and lectures for him through which he was able to introduce the Bahá'í teachings to a wide variety of people, ranging from prominent politicians and religious leaders to the lowly and down-trodden. There was considerable press coverage at the time and London society was delighted at the appearance in their midst of one who had endured so much suffering yet displayed such love and generosity of spirit towards all he came into contact with.

Despite suffering from increasingly poor health, Rosenberg dedicated three decades to travelling widely and promoting the Bahá'í teachings and principles. She made visits to the United States, France, Egypt and Ireland and returned on a number of occasions to the Holy Land to refine her understanding and accurately convey 'Abdu'l-Bahá's guidance to the steadily growing band of believers back home. She and Mrs Thornburgh-Cropper would also participate in a number of important conferences which promoted religious understanding and new thinking about the establishment of peace in the world.

Following the passing of 'Abdu'l-Bahá in 1921, his grandson and successor, Shoghi Effendi recognised the necessity of developing the Bahá'í Movement into an independent religious community and establishing democratically-elected administrative institutions to govern its affairs at local and national levels. He entrusted Ethel Rosenberg with the task of calling some of these early elections and both she and Mrs Thornburgh-Cropper found themselves elected to serve on both the London Spiritual Assembly and the earliest National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís for the country.

They continued to make an invaluable contribution to the development of community life and activities well into their old age, contributing their knowledge and experience to activities ranging from participation in conferences to publishing projects. Ethel Rosenberg even taught herself Persian so she could assist in the translation of Bahá'í scriptures into English. Ethel Rosenberg passed away in 1930 at the age of 72. Shoghi Effendi described her as 'England's outstanding Bahá'í pioneer worker'. Mrs Thornburgh-Cropper outlived her 'spiritual daughter' by eight years. In their final years, ill health had forced them to take less prominent roles in the community but by then, their pioneering achievements were finding fruition as a new generation of Bahá'ís under the guidance of Shoghi Effendi, rose to build a distinctive religious community which in time would be established in virtually every locality in the British Isles.

Ethel Rosenberg (left), Mary Thornburgh-Cropper (right).

Ethel Rosenberg, Mary Thornburgh-Cropper

Original article written by Rob Weinberg for the UK Bahá'í Centenary 1998-1999 and first published on the UK Bahá’í Heritage website.


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