Black History Month: Robert Turner

Black History Month: Robert Turner

Robert Turner (October 15, 1855 – June 15, 1909) was an early American Bahá’í who was honored as the first African American Bahá’í in God Passes By, and named a Disciple of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá by Shoghi Effendi.

Robert lived in California, where he was employed by the Hearst family as a butler and steward, having begun working for them in the 1870’s as George Hearst’s valet. He worked for both George and Phoebe Hearst for thirty-five years. When George Hearst passed in 1891 Robert and his wife were specially invited to the funeral by Phoebe.

Robert first heard of the Bahá’í Faith while accompanying Phoebe on a trip to Paris when Lua Getsinger visited Phoebe and spoke about the religion. He listened to Lua while serving tea, and remained to hear her talk, and both Phoebe and Robert became Bahá’ís in July or August 1898 after returning to California.

In 1898 Phoebe funded the Pilgrimage of the the first Western Bahá’í Pilgrim group, which consisted of fifteen Bahá’ís, including both herself and Robert Turner. The Pilgrims departed the United States on September 22, 1898 and arrived in ‘Akká on December 10 the same year.

As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was still a prisoner of the Ottoman Government the pilgrim group could only visit him in small numbers, and they visited him in three smaller groups. Robert met with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on December 10, 1898. He initially waited outside the room where the pilgrims met with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, feeling that he was not worthy of meeting him, but ‘Abdu’l-Bahá left the room to meet Robert and embraced him. He met with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá again on February 17, 1899 before returning to America.

Robert remained a faithful Bahá’í after returning to America from Pilgrimage, when several other early Bahá’ís either left the Faith or supported Covenant-breaking. He wrote that he “refused to let the world throw dust in his eyes.”

In 1909 Robert fell ill and became bedridden. Ali Kuli Khan visited him while he was ill, and reported his condition to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, who sent a Tablet in reply. A provisional translation of the Tablet prepared by Khan:

“Convey wondrous Abhá greetings to Mr Robert, the servant of that honorable lady, and say to him: ‘Be not grieved at your illness, for thou hast attained eternal life and hast found thy way to the World of the Kingdom. God willing, we shall meet one another with joy and fragrance in that Divine World, and I beg of God that you may also find rest in this material world.”

Robert reportedly recited the Greatest Name as his illness became worse, even when he became delirious. Ali Kuli Khan donated a Bahá’í burial ring-stone after Robert’s passing, which Robert was buried with in Colma, California.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá‎ revealed a Tablet in Robert’s honor after his passing. An excerpt of a provisional translation:

“As to Mr Robert (Turner), the news of his ascension saddened the hearts. He was in reality in the utmost sincerity. Glory be to God! What a shining candle was aflame in that black-colored lamp. Praise be to God that that lighted candle ascended from the earthly lamp to the Kingdom of Eternity and gleamed and became aflame in the Heavenly Assemblage. Praise be to God that you adorned his blessed finger with the ring bearing the inscription: ‘Verily I originated from God and returned unto Him’ … This too is a proof of his sincerity and that in his last breath, he breathed the Alláh-u-Abhá, whereby the hearts of those present were impressed.”[17]