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

Christopher Buck , Steven Kolins | May 3, 2023

PART 77 IN SERIES The Universal Emancipation Proclamation

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

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Christopher Buck , Steven Kolins | May 3, 2023

PART 77 IN SERIES The Universal Emancipation Proclamation

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

The Baha’i teachings place a very high and noble value on sacrificing personal desires for the good of humanity as a whole. Encouraging this selfless motivation, Abdu’l-Baha wrote:

It is appropriate and befitting that in this illumined age – the age of the progress of the world of humanity – we should be self-sacrificing and should serve the human race. Every universal cause is divine and every particular one is temporal.

RELATED: A Persian Goes to Harlem – to Unite the Races

From all appearances, however, it seemed as though the demands of marriage, family life, and the necessity to earn a living all got in the way of the Rev. James Simpson’s plans to travel to Africa and teach the Baha’i Faith there in the early 1920s.

As things turned out, however, Mr. Simpson had not given up hope of doing so. In fact, he planned to complete his law degree at Brooklyn Law School in practical preparation for such a venture, as seen in the following letter to Mrs. Victoria Bedikian of April 15, 1923, written on the letterhead of “The Co-Operative League of America,” which may indicate his place of employment at the time: 

My dear Sister …

You are, indeed, the shining lamp in the Kingdom. I can not praise too highly your work for the children. This work is destined to become the foundation of the general Bahai Education of the children of the New Race.

Mrs. Simpson had a lovely meeting with the precious boys this afternoon to which I was an interested onlooker. The “Garden of Truth” is moving forward.

After eight lectures, I will complete my course in Law, when real preparation for our journey to Morocco will be begun. I shall engage in the practice of my profession just as soon as the preliminaries are met; and the first time I become financially able, I shall proceed to Morocco to do [Abdu’l-Baha’s] biddings. You will be duly informed as to the progress.

Mrs. Simpson and the children (four of them) are well and happy in the Love of the Cause and share and co-operate with you. She will write you details soon.

With the sincerest Bahai Love and Greetings in which wife and little ones join, I remain,

Yours in the service of the Kingdom,

(signed) Jas. T. Simpson

The Reverend’s bold objectives – leaving the ministerial profession, commensurate with identifying as a Baha’i, and then exerting devotion, discipline, and determination to complete his law degree, with the goal of establishing his law practice in order to become financially independent, while continuing to support his wife and children, all in preparation for his planned trip to Morocco to teach the Baha’i Faith, pursuant to the wishes of Abdu’l-Baha — are all quite evident in this letter.

How did Rev. Simpson get into Brooklyn Law School? Evidently with the assistance of the well-known early American Baha’i Joseph Hannen, who, with his wife, Pauline Hannen, originally taught Simpson the Baha’i Faith – just as the couple earlier introduced the Faith to Louis G. Gregory, a graduate of Howard University Law School. 

In his next letter, of October 3, 1918, Rev. Simpson discloses the following war injury:

I was shell-shocked at [illegible] France, 25th Oct. 1918, while on duty with [the] 350th Machine Gun Bn. [Battalion]. … The Gov’t has provided a Bd. [Board] of Rehabilitation to aid such men as I am who were injured in the line of duty. I was examined by the local board’s physician at Pittsburgh the next and following day after I was with you and found to be suffering from the effects of my injuries and recommended to be put in training.

RELATED: From Black Baptist Preacher to Baha’i Teacher

Soon afterward, Joseph Hannen wrote to the Hon. Nel. W. Lamkin, Chief, Division of Rehabilitation, Federal Board for Vocational Education, in Washington, D. C.:

My dear Sir:–

Permit me to address you on behalf of Rev. James T. Simpson, Late First Lieutenant & Chaplin, A.E.F., whose case, I understand, is pending before your Division.

Chaplain Simpson was shell-shocked in France on 25th October, 1918, while on duty with the 350th Machine Gun Bn. Later he had influenza and a serious attack of [pneumonia]. He was examined in Pittsburgh, Pa., some time ago, and I am informed that he was found to be suffering from the effects of his injuries and recommend it to be put in training.

Mr. Simpson is desirous of entering the Brooklyn Law School about October 15th. As I understand that his case comes within the provisions of Section 2 of the recent Act of Congress creating your Board, and since he is married and has four (4) dependent minor children – as shown by affidavits on file with his case – I beg to request that action be taken as promptly as possible. This seems to be a specially deserving case. I am personally acquainted with Lieutenant Simpson, and to state the above facts from my own knowledge and reliable information in my possession.

Thanking you in advance for such action as will expedite action on this worthy claim, I be to remain,

Faithfully Yours,

(signed) J.H. Hannen

Evidently, Rev. Simpson was in Carnegie, Pennsylvania (near Pittsburgh) prior to September 18, 1919, receiving medical treatment after his military tour as a chaplain in France. In a letter of that same date, he tells us that, while in France, he sent some poems he had written to Abdu’l-Baha. 

Rev. Simpson then wrote to Joseph Hannen:

My dear Sir and Friend:

This is to inform you and Mrs. Hannen of my local arrangements. I am regularly matriculated as per orders, serving the required legal clerkship in a lawyer’s office at the above address. I do not intend to practice in this State but this Knowledge will be useful notwithstanding. You know I am sent to North Africa where I am preparing to go.

I have seen the wonderful Miss Lloyd and excellent Mr. Wilhelm. I spent two pleasant hours with them. I did not ask their advice as to whether I should go now [or] wait until I finish the law course. I feel that [Abdu’l-Baha] wants me to finish the course. You know I could be of invaluable service in a consular or diplomatic relation in Morocco or Tunis, et. cet. …

In another letter, dated October 29, 1919, Rev. Simpson announced that he had received a tablet from Abdu’l-Baha:

I am in such rapture that I know not what to do! Should I remain and finish the course in Law (say about two years) or go at once. If I finished the course I could practice law in Morocco or Algeria. I speak French fluently and studied Arabic in Rochester (N.Y.) Theological Seminary from which I graduated in 1913. …

I think [Abdu’l-Baha] wills that I studied for two years and then, perhaps, world conditions may be somewhat settled. …

Based on this fragmentary yet informative archival record, while Mr. Simpson’s plans are clear, we do not yet know if they came to fruition. Whether or not his plans succeeded, James Simpson’s deep belief in and commitment to the Baha’i Faith seem to be resolute and sterling, notwithstanding the eventual outcome of his planned trip to Africa. Clearly, he had a heart of gold.

Further evidence of this ardent faith as a Baha’i can be seen in his letter to his spiritual mother, Pauline Hannen, after the sudden death of Joseph Hannen on January 27, 1920, when he was hit by a car a week earlier:

My best beloved Mother …

I have just found out today that your beloved Husband has been translated! He is more now with our Lord than ever. The Master [Abdu’l-Baha] had need of him and summoned him.

Confirmed as you are in the Love of the Blessed Perfection, Bahaullah, I know you will understand the bereavement. He is not dead but lives in Reality. His spirit will guide our footsteps in this mundane sphere. We, in earth plane, can not understand the so-called Death — often it is difficult for us to fully understand that the condition or change called “death” is really promotion.

Now, my dearest Mother, I enter into your sorrow and bear every pain with you. We will be patient. We will soon be reunited with him … He is ever mindful of us and is now doing a larger service than ever. Where he was limited, he is now extended. He reaches the World of Humanity – every tongue, every nation – the entire Race of Humanity can be reached by Him. I must see you and give you my personal condolence. Be of good cheer. We love you. I will be in Washington this week I think, as, I will just run up informally, and see you –

I want to inherit some of his interest and activities. I am hoping you will assign me some of his work (such as I may do) that it may be carried on as he wished it. Again, asking you, dearest Mother, to be cheerful, am commending You to our blessed Master’s care and protection, constantly praying for you, I am ever

Your faithful and affectionate Son …

(signed) Jas. T. Simpson

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