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COLLECTIONBook reviews
TITLEEthel Rosenberg: The Life and Times of England's Outstanding Pioneering Worker, by Robert Weinberg: Review
AUTHOR 1Richard Hollinger
TITLE_PARENTBahá'í Studies Review
PUB_THISAssociation for Bahá'í Studies English-Speaking Europe
CONTENT Ethel Rosenberg: The Life and Times of England's Outstanding Pioneering Worker
Author: Robert Weinberg
Publisher: Oxford, George Ronald, 1995
Review by: Richard Hollinger

Robert Weinberg's biography of Ethel Rosenberg, one of the first Bahá'ís in the United Kingdom and a key figure in the spread of the Bahá'í Faith in the West, is a timely addition to the literature on Bahá'í history. Born into a family of artists from Bath, Rosenberg became a painter of miniatures and portraits. Her work and social connections situated her a network of society women that included Mrs. Mary Virginia Thornburgh-Cropper, from whom she learned of the Bahá'í Faith. Accepting the Faith in 1899, she was actively engaged in its promotion until her death in 1930. During this time she wrote and edited publications; organized Bahá'í meetings; visited `Abdu'l-Bahá in Akka on three different occasions, and helped to coordinate his visits to London; acted as a secretary for Shoghi Effendi and assisted him with translations; and served on the earliest Bahá'í administrative institutions in the United Kingdom.

The biography is well-researched and is a significant contribution to the literature on the early history of the Bahá'í Faith in the West, in general, and on the development of the Bahá'í community in the United Kingdom in particular. Weinberg has used previously untapped archival sources, such as the diaries of Ethel Rosenberg herself and the minutes of meetings of the National Spiritual Assembly of the United Kingdom, to not only document the life of Rosenberg but to illuminate various events of early twentieth-century Bahá'í history with which she was associated. For example, the book includes a wealth of new information about the beginnings of the Bahá'í Faith in the United Kingdom and France, about events in Haifa following the death of `Abdu'l-Bahá, about the early ministry of Shoghi Effendi, and about the development of Bahá'í administration in the United Kingdom in the 1920's.

Ethel Rosenberg provides the geographic and chronological focus for the book, but, in fact, from it we learn considerably more about her "times" than about her. Perhaps this is because of Weinberg's stated inability to penetrate Rosenberg's inner life. As he explains, he has "left the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about Ethel Rosenberg's private character and spiritual station..." (Preface). The obstacles to documenting the lives of women from this era are well-known to writers of women's history: whether there are voluminous records, or as is more often the case, a dearth of primary sources, it can be difficult to extract a meaningful portrait of a private life deliberately veiled from public view. For example, in the course of my own research on Phoebe Hearst, a contemporary and acquaintance of Rosenberg whose life is quite well-documented, I discovered how difficult it can be to reconstruct the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs of a woman who was determined to conceal these matters from a curious public. Still, one wishes that Weinberg had used what he did know to piece together a more complete picture of the public personality of Ethel Rosenberg. He might also have explained in greater detail how that personality shaped the history of the Bahá'í Faith in the United Kingdom.

Weinberg's intended audience is clearly the Bahá'í community. Therefore he adheres to certain conventions often followed in works by Bahá'í historians, practices which function primarily to inspire rather than to inform the reader. One convention used in the kind of "inspirational history" I am describing is the inclusion of those anecdotes and accounts that, by virtue of their continued repetition, have become a part of a sacred history within the Bahá'í community--a history that not only conveys information about past events but invests them with special meaning. Weinberg follows this custom by incorporating in this biography a brief history the Babi-Bahá'í Movement that includes E. G. Browne's descriptions of Bahá'u'lláh and `Abdu'l- Baha, and an account of the Bahá'í Faith's mention at the Columbian Exposition in 1893, none of which has much bearing on the subject at hand. He also discusses the first Western Bahá'í pilgrimage, which took place before Rosenberg became a Bahá'í, and the conversion and death of Thomas Breakwell, whom Rosenberg never met. These narratives are not necessary to the biography, but they do frame the work, connecting it to sacred stories and thus representing it as a continuation of sacred history. The tendency to digress in this way, however, detracts from what is otherwise a very readable account.

Weinberg is to commended for his attempts to avoid writing hagiography or history "as it should have been," a temptation to which other writers in this genre have succumbed. He forthrightly discusses controversies and personality disputes within the British Bahá'í community, for example. However, he sometimes makes assertions that do not seem to be based on evidence, but rather on his own impressions of how the people involved must have or should have felt. For example, how could he know that Mrs. Thornburgh-Cropper was "elevated by her profound religious experience in Akka..." (39); that Rosenberg's and Thornburgh- Cropper's "hopes and spirits were high, with the love of the Master in their hearts..." (40); that "the Covenant-breakers were ecstatic with the response of the Ottoman Regime..." (102); or that Rosenberg returned from the Holy Land "refreshed and renewed" (107)? At any rate, no evidence is cited in support of these and similar assertions.

In addition, the credibility of Weinberg's account of the life and times of Ethel Rosenberg would be greatly enhanced by a more critical use of earlier works written by Bahá'í historians. Weinberg perpetuates a number of minor inaccuracies introduced in other Bahá'í publications, such as that Julia Pearson was a niece of Phoebe Hearst (36).[1] Moreover, he echoes statements, drawn from secondary sources, that have not been adequately documented: for example, that Ahmad Sohrab was lobbying for the election of the Universal House of Justice on the death of `Abdu'l-Bahá and secretly wanted to be a member of that body (207). [2] He also quotes from two letters attributed to Phoebe Hearst that she said were not written by her (38). [3] These are minor points that are not central to the narrative, but they call into question the reliability of the author's treatment of more significant issues.

There is nothing wrong with using secondary sources, of course, and repeating assertions of questionable accuracy from them is inevitable in the course of writing history. However, earlier works could be used more judiciously, rather than with the assumption that they are accurate. And his sources should be cited more meticulously so that the reader can determine the basis for an account; there are many places where footnotes should have been added for this purpose. Finally, the distinction between primary and secondary sources, and the gradations of reliability within these categories, ought to be reflected in the text itself. It is axiomatic in modern historiography that there can be no way to be absolutely certain about what happened in the past: historical documentation can only provide evidence for varying degrees of probability that something occurred in a certain way. This being the case, contemporary historians are in the practice using nuanced statements to alert the reader to the reliability of the sources being used and to the fact that another construction of the events could well be more accurate. Such a method would be salutary here. In conclusion, it may well be that Bahá'í history would be better served by more rigorous standards of evidence and more carefully nuanced expositions than are represented by the conventions of "inspirational history." Weinberg's biography shares some of the limitations of this genre of writing, but is distinguished by its solid research and honest reporting. For this reason, it is one of the better works on Bahá'í history produced for the community in recent years, and is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of the Bahá'í Faith in the West.


    [1] This assertion seems to have been first introduced in Bahá'í literature in God Passes By (217). But Pearson was actually a governess of Agnes Lane, a niece of Hearst. See Robert Stockman, The Bahá'í Faith in America: Origins, 1892-1900 (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1985) 144.
    [2] Weinberg does not cite a source for this information, but it is likely a repetition of assertions found in Adib Taherzadeh, The Covenant of Bahá'u'lláh (Oxford: George Ronald, 1992) 334, 344. Since, Taherzadeh did not himself cite a source for this information, the information should have been used with extreme caution. At the every least, since this is far from being an established fact, Weinberg should have cited his source.
    [3] These letters were circulated in typescript in the early Bahá'í community and were later published in Bahá'í World vol. 7 (801), God Passes By (258), and other Bahá'í publications. However, Hearst always maintained that she had not written the letters. See typescript of a letter to the editor (responding to the publication of one of these letters) from Hearst, "Emogene Hoagg" folder, Washington D.C. Bahá'í Archives; and Anne Apperson Flint to Ella Cooper, 19 January 1944, Ella Cooper Papers.
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