Not long ago a friend and colleague of mine, moved by the tragic story of Alonzo Edgar Twine, the first documented convert to the Baha'i Faith in South Carolina, wrote to the Universal House of Justice, the supreme governing council of the faith, suggesting that Mr. Twine be designated a martyr. As in the history of many older religious movements, a feature of the early years of the Baha'i Faith—particularly in Iran, the land of its birth, and neighboring countries—has been the phenomenon of believers being forced to give their lives rather than deny their convictions. Even today, the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran is engaged in systematic persecution of the Baha'is, the country's largest religious minority, and several hundred have been executed since the early 1980s.
Surviving documents strongly suggest that Alonzo Twine, a young black attorney from Charleston, was persecuted by church and state authorities after he became a Baha'i in the autumn of 1910. He died in the state insane asylum in 1914 after a horrific three-year confinement. It seems to be a plausible case, from this hemisphere, of martyrdom in the formative decades of the Baha'i Faith.
The response of the Universal House of Justice is both heart-warming and instructive. While the body explains its reluctance to designate Mr. Twine or anyone else as a martyr retrospectively, it also places his life and death in broader context, noting that during the faith's early years "across the world in far flung settings...individuals...faced situations of fanaticism and cruelty, sometimes resulting in laying down their lives for the Cause of God...."
The House of Justice adds pointedly:
God is aware of all things, and the station of each soul is recognized and safeguarded by Him. This is true also for that noble and illumined soul, Alonzo Twine.
This is a truly gratifying, and thought-provoking, response. One of the real joys of the research and writing of my new book, No Jim Crow Church: The Origins of South Carolina's Baha'i Community, was brining Alonzo Twine's story to light after a hundred years of obscurity, in effect resurrecting a soul that had been lost to history. (I have also written about him online here, and spoken about him at a number of public appearances.) This letter is a welcome coda to that story.
In addition, the letter stirs the imagination about the possibilities of future historical detective work in other "far flung lands." While there has been some study of the persecution of Baha'i communities and individuals under the Nazi regime and under Communism in the Soviet Union and its satellite states, so far quite little about the fate of the first Baha'is under brutal colonial regimes in Africa, or the hell that Baha'i communities in Ethiopia, Congo, Liberia, Cambodia, Nicaragua, and other war-zones around the world have faced. I think there are many more stories to tell, more noble names to bring into the light where they belong. Historians of the Baha'i Faith will have plenty to do for years to come.
The letter is reproduced here, with the kind permission of its recipient.