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How do I become Baha’i?

A Christian Reverend’s Baha’i Intellectual Odyssey and Spiritual Quest

Christopher Buck , Steven Kolins | May 17, 2023

PART 78 IN SERIES The Universal Emancipation Proclamation

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the authoritative views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Christopher Buck , Steven Kolins | May 17, 2023

PART 78 IN SERIES The Universal Emancipation Proclamation

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the authoritative views of the Baha'i Faith.

The Reverend James T. Simpson – a deeply religious man, a true missionary at heart, and a visionary agent of transformation – went on a spiritual quest and found the Baha’i Faith.

Rev. Simpson was ambitious and practical as well – after all, he lived in the real, war-weary world. Throughout his life, he pursued a deeper knowledge of the spiritual realities – as evidenced by the extensive ecumenical education he sought.

RELATED: From Black Baptist Preacher to Baha’i Teacher

Before becoming a Baha’i, Rev. Simpson pursued an ambitious religious education and vocation, having served as a church pastor and an army chaplain, as we noted in a previous article in this series. Here, from an early book titled Who’s Who in Colored America, is a detailed list of the seminaries he attended, and the religious positions he held, before and after he became a Baha’i:

1. 1893–1895: Harbison College (Abbeville, South Carolina), “Certificate.”

2. 1899–1905: Post-School Teacher (United States Army).

3. 1905–1908: Teacher in Mississippi Public Schools (Montgomery and Carroll Counties).

4. 1908: Student Teacher, Rust College (Holly Springs, Mississippi).

5. 1908–1909: Professor of Military Science and Tactics, Biddle University (now Johnson C. Smith University (Charlotte, North Carolina).

6. 1909–1910: Meadville Theological School (Meadville, Pennsylvania).

7. 1909–1911: “Ordained Minister and Pastored in State of Pennsylvania.”

8. 1910–1912: Western Theological Seminary (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). 

9. 1912–1913: Rochester Theological Seminary (Rochester, New York), “Graduated.”

10. 1912–1913: Pastor, Second Baptist Church (Mumford, New York).

11. 1913–1914: Simmons University (Louisville, Kentucky), Master of Arts.

12. 1913–1914: Assistant Corresponding Secretary, Foreign Mission Board, National Baptist Convention.

13. 1914–1915: Principal, Kosciusko Industrial College (Kosciusko, Mississippi).

14. 1915–1918: President, Mound Bayou Industrial College (Mound Bayou, Mississippi).

15. 1918–1919: Chaplain and First Lieutenant, United States Army (overseas).

16. 1919 (summer): University of Nancy (France).

17. 1921 (summer): Columbia University (New York, New York).

18. 1919–1923: St. Lawrence University (Canton, New York), LL.B.. Note: This may be an error, as other sources indicate that Rev. Simpson earned his law degree at Brooklyn Law School. 

19. 1926: Rochester Theological Seminary (Rochester, New York), Bachelor of Divinity. 

Entries for James T. Simpson were later published in Who’s Who in Colored America in 1931, his middle name variously reported as “Thompson” and “Thomason.” Reverend Simpson clearly tried, his entire life, to follow the admonition of Baha’u’llah to “arise and unloose their tongues for the sake of God:”

Beseech ye the One true God that He may, through the power of the hand of loving-kindness and spiritual education, purge and purify certain souls from the defilement of evil passions and corrupt desires, that they may arise and unloose their tongues for the sake of God, that perchance the evidences of injustice may be blotted out and the splendour of the light of justice may shed its radiance upon the whole world. 

For much of his life, James Simpson worked and studied simultaneously. As a military veteran of the Spanish-American war and later of World War I, Rev. Simpson certainly had the requisite discipline. How much all this hard work paid off in the end is hard to say. But his spiritual quest culminated in his discovery of the universal, humanitarian, and egalitarian principles of the “Baha’i Cause” or “Baha’i Movement” (as it was called back then), now more widely known as the Baha’i Faith.

While Rev. Simpson served as a commissioned First Lieutenant and Chaplain with the 92nd Division, First Army, American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), United States Army (overseas), from 1918–1919, and was wounded in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, he suffered a traumatic war injury, recounted in Earl F. Stover’s Up from Handymen: The United States Army Chaplaincy 1865–1920

Many were extremely brave and rescued wounded men from the battlefield, thus exposing themselves to gas and to various kinds of fire. Going “over the top” with his unit, James T. Simpson, a black chaplain, was hit by a piece of shrapnel from a large shell. Fortunately, the shrapnel ricocheted off a metal part of the gas mask he was wearing, and he suffered from a severe case of shell shock rather than what might have been a fatal head wound.

According to the National Archives, as a part of the final Allied offensive of World War I, and as the largest operation of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was the single deadliest campaign in American military history.

Based on his 1927 biographical entry in Who’s Who in Colored America, Rev. James T. Simpson had finished law school in 1923, and was working as a lawyer in 1927, although the New York State Census of 1925 listed him as a postal clerk. His religious affiliation is given as “Methodist” rather than Baha’i, a not-uncommon occurrence at the time. In 1919, after all, his name appears in the 1919 Year Book of the Churches Covering the Year 1918 as “James T. Simpson, A. M. E.” (American Methodist Episcopal).

When James T. Simpson returned from World War I, he was a changed man, in some respects, having been shell-shocked – a condition that today would be called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He was also a changed man spiritually, too, with his worldview, having become a Baha’i, undergoing a dramatic and far-reaching personal and social transformation. 

While James T. Simpson served as an army chaplain in France in 1918–1919, he sent Abdu’l-Baha some poetry, a copy of which was in the following letter to Joseph and Pauline Hannen, courtesy of the United States National Baha’i Archives: 

This is merely a word of salutations. I arrived here safely. I enjoyed the meeting very much. I rejoice in the Love and Unity manifested thereat. He [Abdu’l-Baha] was verily present with us. I am praying every day for perfection in the Path. I want you to pray constantly for me.

I am enclosing some lines addressed to [Abdu’l-Baha]. I wrote them from inspiration. I was only about fifteen minutes in composition and had not previously thought upon the [illegible] to make lines — I sent a copy rather the original to Him while I was in France.

Pray for me! Pray for me!! With love and greetings to you and the Friends, I remain

Faithfully yours …

Jas. T. Simpson

Here are Reverend Simpson’s lines of poetry:

(1) O Love our God, Thy Name is Love!

Father Thou be to me.

Deliverance from all errors and wrongs

That embarrassments may not be.

(2) Shelter me from arising clouds,

That pleasant my stay may be,

Exceeding all of former times 

May wisdom be to me! 

(3) Grant to be wise with pleasing access 

To the hearts put into my charge, 

Without the least of suspicion may

Confidence loom high and large.

(4) Pardon the wrongs of every Kind.

Let proper amends be made

That none may suffer from my deeds

Neither happiness nor Love delayed.

(5) Let Love be unhampered by embarrassment,

That it not be attended by shame,

That all concerned may happy be

In the enjoyment of Thy Name.

(6) O Love our God, Thy Name is Love!

May worship be to Thee!

That every Thought and deed that’s done

Be worthy of children free!

(7) Thy Fatherly, benign and gracious gift

Is invoked for dependent ones,

That they be happy in the enjoyment of Life,

The gift from Thy regent throne.

(8) A gift from Thee is asked for me,

Unworthy of that gift I am,

The enjoyment of Thee continuously

O Love, Thou art forever the same!

These lines were inspired during my prayers and meditations while I was on duty in France as Chaplain of the 305th Service Battalion. I sent the original to [Abdu’l-Baha] at Haifa, Syria. Pray for my spiritual perfection!

A faithful pilgrim in the Path —

Jas. T. Simpson 

RELATED: Why Would a Harlem Preacher Visit Africa to Teach the Baha’i Faith?

James T. Simpson’s plans of traveling to Morocco and North Africa to spread the Baha’i teachings — which Abdu’l-Baha praised and encouraged — needed practical preparation, which obtaining a law degree would largely accomplish. He also needed assistance from the Baha’i community, especially by way of his future wife, Caroline Simpson, who will be the topic of our next article in this series.

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