Thomas Breakwell (1872–1902) was the first Englishman to become a Bahá’í and the first to make the pilgrimage to ‘Akká. He was also the first western Baha'i to give the Huququ'llah (Right of God). He was taught the Bahá’í Faith by May Bolles (later to become May Maxwell) in the summer of 1901, and traveled to meet ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in ‘Akká that same summer. At ‘Abdu’l-Bahá's request, Breakwell took up permanent residence in Paris, where he worked enthusiastically to teach the religion and help develop the Paris Bahá’í community. Thomas Breakwell died of tuberculosis on 13 June 1902, barely a year after joining the religion.
From the Bahá'í perspective, the significance of Thomas Breakwell’s life lies not in his material or professional accomplishments, but rather in his spiritual capacity. His purity, detachment and intense devotion were noted by a number of those who met him, most significantly and most keenly by 'Abdu’l-Bahá himself. In 1955 Shoghi Effendi, then head of the religion, described Breakwell as one of the "three luminaries of the Irish, English and Scottish Bahá'í communities".
Thomas Breakwell was born on 31 May 1872 in the town of Woking in southern England, and was the youngest of five children. His father, Edward Breakwell, sold domestic ironware and was an herbalist. In the 1860s Thomas’ father had joined the Primitive Methodist church and it is almost certain that this was the religious tradition that Thomas was exposed to while growing up. Thomas was educated in a public school prior to his family emigrating to the United States.
Once in the United States, Thomas Breakwell was able to find a well-paying position in a southern cotton mill. This position allowed him enough income and vacation time to visit relatives in England and to travel in Europe. It was on one of these trips, in 1901, that he heard about the Bahá’í Faith.
Discovery of the Bahá’í Faith
While on a steamer bound for France, Thomas Breakwell met a woman named Mrs. Milner who was acquainted with the religion. Seeing Breakwell’s intense interest in spiritual subjects, Mrs. Milner took Breakwell to see her acquaintance May Bolles (later Maxwell). At their first meeting in Paris, May Bolles did not mention the religion or discuss any of its teachings.
According to May Bolles, when Breakwell returned the next day, he told her that he had experienced a profoundly spiritual moment. While walking after the previous day’s meeting, Breakwell told her that, “…suddenly a wind struck me and whirled around me, and in that wind a voice said, with an indescribable sweetness and penetration, ‘Christ has come again! Christ has come again!' ” When Breakwell asked May if she thought him insane, she replied that he was not. Over the next three days, May explained the history, principles and laws of the Bahá’í Faith and gave him materials to read. On hearing of `Abdu'l-Bahá, Breakwell decided to cancel his existing travel plans and to request permission to see him.
Meeting with `Abdu’l-Bahá
Thomas Breakwell’s request to go to ‘Akká was granted and he and another new Bahá’í, Herbert Hopper, undertook the journey together. After arriving at the guesthouse, Breakwell was seized with doubt about the entire journey, to the point that he felt ill. However, when he met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá for the first time, Breakwell immediately accepted him.
During his interview with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Breakwell explained that he worked for a mill which employed child labor and his sorrow over such work and asked ‘Abdu’l-Bahá what to do about his situation. On hearing this, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá instructed Thomas Breakwell to cable his resignation to the mill, which Breakwell did at once.
The visa Breakwell and Hooper had been able to secure only allowed them to stay in Akká for two days. Prior to Breakwell leaving, `Abdu’l-Bahá requested that he settle in Paris. Breakwell immediately agreed. Yúnis Khán, `Abdu’l-Bahá’s secretary, accompanied the men as far as Haifa. During this trip, Breakwell also established a correspondence with Yúnis Khán.
Life in Paris
Upon returning to Paris, Breakwell became a leader in the local Bahá’í community and an enthusiastic teacher of the Baha'i Faith and its principles.. May Bolles relates that he demonstrated exemplary courtesy, intense fervor, eloquence, sympathy and genuine love, among other attributes. During the period, Breakwell regularly corresponded with `Abdu’l-Bahá ‘s secretary and translator Yúnis Khán. Through these letters, Breakwell and `Abdu’l-Bahá remained in contact.
Breakwell began living a frugal lifestyle, walking instead of taking cabs and living in one of the poorer neighborhoods in Paris, so that he would be able to donate money to the Bahá’í Faith. He became the first western Bahá’í to give the Huqúqu’lláh, despite his own uncertain financial future. During this time his parents arrived to take him home and restore him to his family's religion and disowned him when they failed. However weeks later his father converted to the Bahá'í Faith.
Declining health and death
During the period of 1901-02, Thomas Breakwell fell ill with tuberculosis. In his letters to 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Breakwell demonstrates a radiant acquiescence regarding his condition, and is not only content with his suffering, but actually desires greater pain, stating, “Suffering is a heady wine; I am prepared to receive that bounty which is the greatest of all; torments of the flesh have enabled me to draw much nearer to my Lord.”
Even as death approached, Breakwell was teaching the Bahá’í Faith to other patients in the tuberculosis ward where he was confined. Thomas Breakwell died at 7:00 pm on 13 June 1902, at the age of 30. Heartbroken at his passing, `Abdu'l-Bahá wrote a moving and inspiring tablet eulogizing him in response to the request of Breakwell's father:
O Breakwell! O my dear one! Where are thy beauteous eyes? Thy smiling lips? Thy princely cheek? Thy graceful form? O Breakwell! O my dear one! At all times do I call thee to mind, I shall never forget thee. I pray for thee by day and by night. I see thee plain before me, as if in open day. O Breakwell! O my dear one!…
The grave was leased for only five years and no surviving members of his family kept up the payments on the plot. His bones were gathered in the cemetery's charnel house. After some years the plot was vacant again and the National Assembly of France applied for permission to erect a permanent monument to Thomas on the site. The cite has become a focal point of pilgrimage. The Universal House of Justice of the Bahá'í Faith, the modern head of the religion, has encouraged the French Bahá'í community to continue its efforts to retrieve Thomas's remains from the charnel house and have them returned to their original grave.
Significance and legacy
Thomas Breakwell's stature as an early Bahá'í of note has a spiritual dimension as well as a material one. In a prayer `Abdu'l-Bahá wrote after Breakwell's death, he indicates that Breakwell had reached the highest spiritual station to which a human being can attain, and had seen the face of God. Shoghi Effendi, then head of the religion, declared that Breakwell, was one of the three luminaries of the British Isles. He shares this title with the Hands of the Cause George Townsend and John Esslemont.
In remembrance of Thomas Breakwell, a nationwide system of Bahá'í Sunday Schools was established during the 1980s in the United Kingdom. In addition, a distance learning program known as the Thomas Breakwell College was established to provide moral and spiritual education to young people. In 1997 a monument marking his resting place was purchased and placed in the cemetery of Pantin in Paris.
- Philip Hainsworth, ‘Breakwell, Thomas (1872–1902)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 21 November 2010
- Effendi, Shoghi (1971). Messages to the Bahá'í World, 1950-1957. Wilmette, Illinois, USA: Bahá'í Publishing Trust. p. 174. ISBN 0-87743-036-5.
- Weinberg, Rob (August 1997). "Who Was Thomas Breakwell?". Bahá'í Journal (UK). Retrieved Sep 7, 2012.
- Lakshiman-Lepain, Rajwantee (1998). "The Life of Thomas Breakwell" (PDF). Baha'i Publishing Trust. Retrieved 7-9-2012. Check date values in:
- "Children's classes". Bahá'ís of Stratford-upon-Avon.
- Momen, Moojan. "Baha'i History of the United Kingdom". Articles for the Baha'i Encyclopedia.