Sometime in 1898, Robert Turner (1855/56 – 1909) became the first African-American member of the Bahá’í Faith. He was the butler of Mrs. Phoebe Hearst, an early Bahá’í. Mr. Turner visited ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in the Holy Land (then Palestine, now Northern Israel), arriving on December 10, 1898 and staying into 1899. The photo shows Robert Turner in the Holy Land in 1898.
While in the Holy Land, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá displayed a great affection for Turner which stood in stark contrast to the conventions of interracial interaction in Western societies. In this way He modeled how true Bahá’ís should act towards all members of the human race. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá told Turner that “if he remained firm and steadfast until the end, he would be the door through which a whole race would enter the Kingdom.”
He was named by Shoghi Effendi one of the nineteen “Disciples of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.” (The Bahá’í World, Vol. IV, p. 118)
Mr. Turner passed away before ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s journey to the West, but he was mentioned lovingly in many of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s tablets, including these two examples cited by Marzieh Gail in “Arches of the Years”:
‘Soon after, I wrote the Master and described our visit with Robert Turner. In a Tablet which I received from the Master later in Washington, He wrote four lines regarding Robert Turner which I translate as follows: “Convey wondrous Abha 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.”’
‘In the summer of 1909, I received from the Master a Tablet acknowledging my letter of June 22, in which I had reported the death of Robert Turner. This letter came to me while I was spending the summer in Carmel, California with my family… This Tablet came in my name in “care of Mrs. Goodall, California”. On the second page of the original Persian Tablet, the Master writes as follows:
‘“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 Allah-u-Abha, whereby the hearts of those present were impressed.
‘“O Thou Creator! O Thou Forgiver! Glorify the precious Robert in Thy Kingdom and in the garden of the Paradise of Abha. Bring him in[to] intimate association with the birds of the celestial meadow. O Thou Knowing God! Although that sinless one was black in color, like unto the black pupil of the eye, he was a source of shining light.
‘“O Thou forgiving Lord! Cause that longing one to attain Thy meeting and cause that thirsty one to drink the water of life in abundance. Thou art the Forgiver, the Pardoner, the Compassionate…”’