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In 24 years of traveling around the world, Martha Louise Root came to embody, more than any other Baha’i in the Faith’s 169-year history, this Baha’i teaching:
The movement itself from place to place, when undertaken for the sake of God, hath always exerted, and can now exert, its influence in the world. – Baha’u’llah
Born in 1872 to loving Baptist parents, Martha grew up in Cambridgeboro, Ohio. Drawn to her father’s example of wisdom and morality, Mattie pursued her studies in literature with an inborn curiosity about other cultures and peoples.
After graduating with a degree in literature from the University of Chicago in 1895, she migrated to Pittsburg to pursue a career in journalism. In the first decade of the 20th century, she wrote articles on the rich, the famous, and the automobile. In 1903, as automobile editor for the Index, she sailed to Ireland to cover racing.
In 1908 Martha heard about the Baha’i Faith at Child’s Restaurant in Pittsburg. Seated with delegates to an international convention she was covering, she heard Roy Wilhelm, who had visited Abdu’l-Baha and some Baha’is in ‘Akka, comment that he had lately returned from the East where he had met members of other religions who actively promoted the brotherhood of humanity. This comment appealed to Martha and the next year, after some investigation, she became a Baha’i.
When Abdu’l-Baha arrived in America in 1912, Martha followed his talks and travels like a moth attracted to light. Profoundly affected by Abdu’l-Baha’s message, Martha decided to take the Baha’i Movement out into the world. Despite her small stature, her lack of resources and her poor health, in 1915 Martha embarked as an itinerant, unpaid Baha’i teacher on an ongoing 24-year odyssey that would take her around the world four times.
In the ensuing years, this remarkable woman — who often said that we live in moments, and not in years — travelled to and then revisited South America, Central America, the Far East, Australia, New Zealand, the Middle East, India, the Balkans, Scandinavia, India, China, Japan, Europe, and Hawaii. With up to 17 pieces of luggage in tow, she gave out the Message of Baha’u’llah to kings, queens, princes, princesses, presidents of republics, ministers, statesmen, publicists, professors, newspapermen, clergymen, poets and a vast number of people in various walks of life. She attended religious congresses, peace societies, Esperanto associations, socialist congresses, Theosophical societies, and women’s clubs. Martha lectured at over 400 universities and colleges. She visited every important city in South America. She placed Baha’i books in private and state libraries. She supervised the translation of the book Baha’u’llah and the New Era into a significant number of languages. She delivered numerous broadcasts. She placed articles on the Faith in major newspapers. She wrote articles about prominent people she had contacted and events she had experienced. She wrote a book on the life of the 19th Century Baha’i heroine Tahirih. And she visited all but 2 German universities as well as nearly 100 educational establishments in China.
An exemplary advocate of the Baha’i Faith, Martha, during her last world-encircling journey from 1937 to 1939, was in Shanghai when war broke out. Barely escaping as a refugee aboard a steamship bound for Manila, she arrived in time for the worst earthquake the city had experienced in a century. Undaunted, she made her way to India and Australia where she taught millions of people through her lectures, literature and newspaper publicity. But on her way homeward to San Francisco, gravely ill from severe pain in her neck and leg, inflamed muscles, difficulty in swallowing and nausea, she had to be assisted to disembark the ship in Honolulu. Three months and three weeks later, she passed away from cancer, which she had discovered as two lumps in her breast 27 years before.
On her last globe-spanning trip, she continued her astonishing schedule in spite of worsening pain, ongoing headaches, difficulty breathing and eating, and a mild heart attack. In Australia she would be unable to bend down to open her suitcase. The excruciating pain and decreased mobility was due to the cancer affecting her bones. Still, she went on.
What prompted this courageous, indomitable woman to carry on in spite of enormous challenges, including physical pain and limited resources? Amatu’l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum, the wife of the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, answers that question best:
Martha Root was firmly convinced that in her possession was the most priceless gem the world had ever seen – the Message of Baha’u’llah. She believed that in showing this gem and offering it to anyone, king or peasant, she was conferring the greatest bounty upon him he could ever receive. It was this proud conviction that enabled her, a woman of no wealth or social prestige, plain, dowdily dressed and neither a great scholar nor an outstanding intellectual, to meet more kings, queens, princes and princesses, presidents and men of distinction, fame and prominence and tell them about the Baha’i Faith than any other Baha’i in the history of this Cause has ever done.