“I’ve found another dead one!” I will announce gleefully to my children.
“Oh, Dad.” They will exclaim with a tired attitude I can’t read.
They know I’m talking about a person who was in some way connected to the history of the Bahá’í Faith in Kansas. I guess that history is my obsession, though I’d rather use a different word for that passion. Passion is a much nicer word.
I am excited about this because Kansas has the second oldest Bahá’í community west of Egypt.
“You mean Egypt, Egypt?” Someone asked once when I had said that.
“Yes. That Egypt.”
How could this be possible? It doesn’t make sense. Kansas??? It was a quirk, an Act of God; I don’t know what to call that improbable happening.
The European invasion of Kansas hadn’t even really started when the religious sequence began which resulted in the Bahá’í Faith in 1844. That spring there was a massive flood of the river that was eventually named after the Natives who lived here. The flood destroyed their major village which was “discovered” just a few years ago when a highway was re-routed. Emergency excavation was undertaken of the site and the most surprising discovery was the burial of a cat. It had not been thrown into a trash pit as rubbish, but it had been buried by itself as pets are usually buried. White people hadn’t known that the Natives had had pet cats. Really?
The river that flooded, and the state itself, carry the name of that tribe, though the tribe itself was eventually expelled from the area – an odd blend of respect and rejection, something Americans are good at. They are the Kanza or Kaw, for short. The state and river are Kansas.
The first evidence of the religion in Kansas appeared in the Leavenworth Conservative Times in Dec 1868, just four months after a family of exiles had been transferred to the worst prison of the Ottoman Empire. That was the family of Bahá’u’lláh, the Prophet-Founder of the Bahá’í Faith. He had been condemned to life in prison there for claiming to have a Message from God. Something worth persecuting, right?
He was a Persian, born to an aristocratic family in the capital of Tehran, which even today persecutes His followers, denies their children schooling, expels them from universities, rejects their business licenses, refuses to pay their pensions, or be buried in cemeteries – even bulldozing over cemeteries to build houses on top of the graves. Bahá’ís in Iran today are denied national identity cards (think Social Security cards) which prevents them from access to a bank account, or even to buy a cell phone. All because of their religious ideas, the worst of which is the idea that a Messenger of God came (gasp!) AFTER Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him.
It is impossible for there to be a Messenger of God after Muhammad, just as impossible for there to be a Messenger from God after Christ. Oops! There’s a little problem here. And, Jews say there is no Messenger from God after Moses. More problem. Each religion teaches that God sent a stream of Messengers, Saviors, Avatars (the title varies with the religion, but they all mean the same thing) through time to humanity, often beginning with Adam, then just stops with their favorite Messenger – and time stands still!
If only it would.
Who put limits on God? The Creator of the Universe and All that Is, has limits??? A puny human says so? Who is arrogant now???
So, Bahá’u’lláh was sent to prison. He benefited nothing from His claim, unless poverty, exile and rejection could be called “benefits.” He was sent to that prison with His entire family and a few friends, in August, and four months later news is printed in the seven-year-old state of Kansas.
What kind of coincidence is that?
That newspaper, with the article, “A New Religion,“ could well have come into the hands of a young mother who lived not so far from Leavenworth, She had no idea that in another four months she would be a widow with a seven year old boy, a baby girl – and a 160 acre farm. What would she do then? Her teenage brother came to help, but it was too much.
Their sister, living on the edge of the frontier (once called the Great American Dessert), urged the two to come out west where she and her husband had settled. He was a miller from Switzerland who was convinced that the Great American Dessert could become great cropland because noting grew there but grass, and grass is a grain, just like wheat. And, that is just what happened. His mill prospered as more and more people came out, plowed up the grass and planted wheat, along with a few other crops. Eventually, decades later, various independent mills such as his were bought up and consolidated into one operation, one company which was called the National Biscuit Corporation – Nabisco!
Once Barbara and Michael Senn arrived at Loudens Falls on the Smoky Hill River, they opened a store and the town of Enterprise was platted around the mill, their store, and a machine shop that the mechanic who have forged the machinery for the mill had set up. Eventually that machine company operated for a hundred years, in one form or another, outlasting the mill. The mechanic soon married Barbara and they had six more children. A “cousin” of his came and joined them when he was 15, making nine children in the family.
In the spring of 1897, Barbara invited a religious teacher in Chicago to visit her home and share his teachings. He was the first Bahá’í teacher in America. She had learned about him from her daughter (remember the infant in 1869? She was grown up now) who was studying music in Chicago. Eventually she would sing on stage in Europe and later publish a songbook for children. Barbara’s youngest son had died in November 1896, the year before. His death, combined with the death of her first, young husband, and the death of an older brother before he was twenty, could well have caused her to wonder: Why, God? Why?
Would this religion have any answers different from that of the local church (which her brother-in-law, the pastor, had expelled her from because she wouldn’t toe the line and believe the “right” things). As a result, a series of classes were held in her home, the second such classes outside of Chicago, site of the first classes.
Why was Chicago first? Because the teacher had come to this country to make his fortune which he thought he could do with an idea for a form of tickets for the World’s Columbian Exposition which was to celebrate the”discovery” of America five hundred years before. No celebrations for the inhabitants who had lived here for thousands of years and didn’t need to be “discovered,” thank you very much! (side note: the author is very proud to claim them among his ancestors, though detailed records were not kept – such as the identity of the tribe).
So, being historian for the second Bahá’í community west of Egypt is no small feat. In that role I have collected over a thousand clipping from Kansas newspapers from 1868 up to 1922 (the terminal date for the digitization of the state historical society’s newspaper collection) and several hundred after that which is only the tip of the iceberg, but much more difficult to find. Because of my efforts, I have been personally entrusted with archival records from various Bahá’í communities around the state, and I have tried to share this history.
The summer 2022 issue of Kansas History: a Journal of the Great Plains carries an article on: “Barbara Ehrsam and the Bahá’í Faith in Kansas: 1868-1924.” Other article, or chapters of books include (in alphabetical order): ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Writes to Kansas City, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Writes to Wichita, the Bahá’í Faith In Kansas: 1897-1947, Barbara Senn Hilty Ehrsam, Bertha: An Early American Bahá’í Stalwart, Brief Sketch of the Life of Hugh Chance, By Thy Strengthening Grace, Dr. David S. Ruhe: Kansas Author, Early Bahá’ís of Enterprise, Elizabeth and Elsbeth: Typically Extraordinary Kansas Women, Enterprise: Second Oldest in U.S.?, Kansas Farm Boy, Letters from a Nineteenth Century Kansas Bahá’í, Missionaries Who Aided the Cause of God, Ninety-Five Years in Topeka, Not Quite So New in Kansas, Theodore Russell Livingston, Turbulent Prairie: Politics, the Press and the Bahá’í Faith in Kansas in 1897. In addition, there are three pieces of historical fiction: On the Leavenworth Trail, Proclaim the New Name, and Strangers Passing Through Town. These have been published in the U.S., Australia, India, New Zealand, with mention in Switzerland, as well as posted online. Online they have been looked at or read by people all over the globe, I haven’t even kept track of all the cities and countries. I am amazed: this Kansas farm boy who couldn’t learn to read in school and STILL can’t spel, did all this?!?!?! Who would’a thunk?
All but the most recent of these (and other writings: poetry, fiction, science fiction, etc) can be found at: https://bahai-library.com/author, then type “Herrmann”in the box provided.
Maybe I am some kind of historian, obsessive, compulsive, passionate, or otherwise.