Bath Quakers and the legacy of the man born Tafari Makonnen

How significant for us in our city could the legacy of an Ethiopian war refugee who came to live in Bath for six years 1936-1941 possibly be? Having volunteered at Fairfield House – former residence of HIM Haile Selassie I – for three years now I’d say it is more significant than Bath Quakers and indeed the wider community in Bath yet realise.

Quakers are radical. Quakers are committed to equality and peace. But Quaker meetings in Britain are not particularly diverse. Nor is the city of Bath for that matter. So it’s no surprise that the Bath Quaker meeting, although growing in size, is not very diverse.

But Bath – uniquely in Britain – has a portal to diversity of great significance, in the form of the legacy to our city of the man born Tafari Makonnen in 1892. He was a devout Orthodox Christian who became Emperor of Ethiopia, assuming the name Haile Selassie I and title His Imperial Majesty (HIM).

There’s a tangible aspect to Haile Selassie’s legacy to Bath: he gifted a nine-bedroom Italianate Victorian villa to the Corporation of Bath. He gave this in grateful recognition of the warm welcome extended to him by the people of Bath in his hour of need. It’s an impressive enough building which – like so many in Bath – needs rather more looking after than Bath and NE Somerset Council can afford to offer.

But there’s also an intangible legacy: a legend, a culture, and not one but two faith traditions: one noble and ancient and the other vibrant and recent.

The building itself, Fairfield House, 2 Kelston Road is used for provision of warm and friendly day care services for the elderly by the charity BEMSCA. It hosts colourful celebrations and commemorations, receives unannounced pilgrims, has a small museum, gallery and library as well as an Internet radio station Imperial Voice.

But it’s the intangible legacy that may prove more important and valuable. Not only does it come with fewer liabilities; it may also have greater potential.

The Emperor was in his lifetime among the most famous and most photographed figures in the world. He was certainly on a par in terms of global recognition with Gandhi, Churchill, the fascist dictators and other household names. He is surely by some distance Bath’s most globally eminent former resident, however impressive Adelard’s study and travels, the Herschels’ discovery of Uranus, and however fond we are of Jane Austen’s books, John Wood’s buildings or Beau Nash’s rules for manners and fashion.

Ethiopia is distinctive and unique among the African nations. It was never colonised (it was briefly invaded, hence the Emperor’s time in Bath). Haile Selassie was central to the history of the League of Nations – the deficiencies of which he proved beyond doubt – later of the United Nations, and also the establishment of the African Union (formerly OAU). He is described as the father of African unity.

Ethiopia’s orthodox christianity was not imposed on it by Europeans, but is its own ancient and original tradition. It has always been a country of many faiths and cultures. How we look after Haile Selassie’s legacy in Bath now and in the future raises complex questions of multi-faith and multi cultural governance, but these are just microcosms of what the Emperor dealt with on a national scale in his lifetime.

It is only rational to look to his own words for guidance in how he approached them. In one lifetime the Emperor confronted issues of war and peace, constitutional governance, slavery, development and modernisation, education and truth, modern healthcare and justice that have exercised the Society of Friends over centuries. So it’s interesting to put the advice he gave on issues of diversity and working together and on peacemaking alongside the advice offered by the Society of Friends.

Quakers on diversity and listening

Haile Selassie on diversity, working together, harmony, unity

Do you welcome the diversity of culture, language and expressions of faith in our yearly meeting and in the world community of Friends? Seek to increase your understanding and to gain from this rich heritage and wide range of spiritual insights…

Do you respect that of God in everyone though it may be expressed in unfamiliar ways or be difficult to discern? 

Each of us has a particular experience of God and each must find the way to be true to it. 

When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. 

Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people’s opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken.

Receive the vocal ministry of others in a tender and creative spirit. Reach for the meaning deep within it, recognising that even if it is not God’s word for you, it may be so for others.

When choices arise, do you take the way that offers the fullest opportunity for the use of your gifts in the service of God and the community?
When decisions have to be made, are you ready to join with others in seeking clearness, asking for God’s guidance and offering counsel to one another?

We should accept diversity in culture and tradition and coexist peacefully.

No one should question the faith of others, for no human being can judge the ways of God.

Never fail to reflect the patient faith of all peoples. Only through discussion, collaboration, agreement and enforcement of the will of mankind can world peace and stability be achieved.

To meet together, and to take council with one another, and to act in mutual cooperation, has proved a most fruitful method in the secular and spiritual fields. Henceforth, the way is open for you to follow this fruitful path.

An appreciation of the common heritage of all peoples, an awareness of the growing interdependence of nations and the indivisibility of the freedom and well being of all peoples are conditions which will help substantially in building a healthy world community.

Our creed and our goal – the hope that today, the spirit of equality and the exchange of culture and mutual understanding might prevail and peace might reign on earth.

The opportunities which the Almighty, in his generosity and wisdom, extends to us, must be found, created, developed and exploited. It is the duty of all mankind to make the maximum use of gifts, ingenuities, capacities and resources which has been placed at its disposal. These are not ours to do with as we will ; they have been given to us in trust. … and each one of us has a sacred duty to fulfill this trust and to prove ourselves worthy of the confidence reposed in us.

If you are kind and tolerant and courteous, you make people think well of us – If you are arrogant and proud and unfriendly, you discredit us in the eyes of others.

On peace

We are called to live ‘in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars’. Do you faithfully maintain our testimony that war and the preparation for war are inconsistent with the spirit of Christ?

Search out whatever in your own way of life may contain the seeds of war. Stand firm in our testimony, even when others commit or prepare to commit acts of violence, yet always remember that they too are children of God.

*Advices & Queries taken from the book of Christian discipline of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain

In various parts of the world, efforts are being made to resolve some of the outstanding issues of our time by negotiation and conciliation, based on the understanding and accommodation of each others interest. This new international climate of understanding is a development of the utmost importance to peace, wellbeing and progress of mankind.

To live in peace with all peoples is a principle that Ethiopia has always held sacred and is a part of her great cultural heritage.

* see Selected Speeches of Haile Selassie I, published by LOJ Society from an earlier 1967 Ethiopian Ministry of Information source.

It’s not identical. But the two strands of thought seem complementary and compatible to a remarkable degree. There’s a consistency not just in content but also in tone and language to the advice. This is despite their very different origins. One is advice offered by the father-figure of an African empire, descendant of a dynasty dating back millenia, and expressed in formal speeches. The other is the discerned wisdom distilled through a few centuries by plain-speaking Friends who dispensed with titles centuries ago (and today write to the British head of state as  “Dear Elizabeth Windsor”).

It may or may not be known whether the Emperor made contact with Bath Quakers during his years in the city in the years 1936-1941. We do know he worked closely in later years with Quakers in Africa, for example on peacemaking and conciliation during the Biafran war. So he would have been aware of Quakers and Quakerism, as well as of the many strands of Christianity he sought to bring together, and the many other religions in Ethiopia notably Islam.

That brings us to the modern faith tradition that arises as part of Haile Selassie’s legacy. That is that of the Rastafari, of whom there are perhaps 1m worldwide, and 10,000 in the UK. Rastafari are devout followers who started to adopt Ras Tafari Makonnen as their Messiah even before his coronation, and for whom his word is the word of god. There should be no doubt about the sincerity of that convincement, although it is not something the devout christian Emperor himself ever seems to have sought.

It’s understandable that the descendants of enslaved black Africans should seek a different messenger, one who speaks to their condition. It’s no criticism of Jesus to point out that his devout followers did enormous damage to tens of millions of Africans and others who were enslaved. One thinks of John Newton, converted to christianity and writing the iconic hymn Amazing Grace on a slave ship, but nevertheless spending a further eight years as a slaver.

The new tradition offers interesting echoes with the early Quakers. Both started out rejecting society and faith traditions they found corrupt and unhelpful. Both differentiate themselves from society at large with distinctive language and appearance. When Rastafari speak of “Babylon” there is a parallel to what early Quakers meant when they spoke disdainfully of “the world”. Both see god as partly residing in the individual. What Quakers call “that of god in everyone” closely matches the Rasta expression “I & I”. Rastafari language is probably mostly familiar to westerners from its use reggae music – a culture recently declared UNESCO intangible heritage. But the use of “I and I” appears to hold a deeper meaning which might echo the Quaker approach to corporate worship.

Some Rastas see Jesus as God or Jah incarnate, with Haile Selssie as the second coming. Others see Haile Selassie as a human prophet who fully recognized the inner divinity in every individual. The former evokes Jesus. The latter closely echoes the role of George Fox, and early Quakers’ sense of a direct experience of the second coming.

There are challenging cultural differences. There is a tendency among the Rastafari to take a patriarchal stance on the equality of women. A distinct strand of homophobia has been evident in controversial songs which remain popular. But there is divergence among Rastafari on these matters, and also some movement. Both tendencies may be rooted more in Jamaican culture and history than in anything said or done by the African Emperor who lived among us in Bath.

Quakers would without question advocate and try to practise equality across the board. Many Rastafari would too. Where there are challenging conversations to be had Haile Selassie’s own words (such as those above) may be helpful, also his actions. For example his wife Menen was the first Ethiopian Empress also to be crowned. He allied with Sylvia Pankhurst on womens’ rights. While homosexuality remained illegal in Ethiopia under his rule his constitution reduced the statutory penalty from death by sword to a few days’ imprisonment. And while some Rastafai may talk today of black supremacy Haile Selassie made it clear – in words made globally famous by the Bob Marley song War – that racial supremacy of any kind was abhorrent, and would lead to dire consequences.

Both traditions – Quakerism and Rastafari – are rooted in christianity and Biblical teachings, albeit with different emphasis. This relationship was explored in the seminal (if dated) 1966 essay on Rastafari by Sheila Kitzinger (The Rastafarian Brethren of Jamaica, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Cambridge University Press)

Back in the c17th Quakers eventually had to adapt to and accept the society they were part of. Quakers also made significant progress towards being accepted, evolving but not compromising core principles. This has meant Quakers have been able to work effectively towards social reform. This started with explicit rejection of war and violence. Quakers are by and large meticulously law-abiding, unless acting under concern or impelled by strong conviction. Quakers are able to affirm oaths in court without swearing on the Bible, and to practise marriage ceremonies. The list of social reforms and social-reform NGOs started by or supported by Quakers is disproportionately long given the size of the Society.

That centuries-long journey – far from perfect, not yet complete – may hold interesting parallels for Rastafari. At the same time, the passion of Rastafari today, whose Messiah walked in our city in living memory, may evoke for Friends the sheer excitement experienced by the first Quakers.

Some Rastafari are already increasingly accepting of society and its laws and institutions. And although Rastafari lack any sort of single central organising entity they too are starting to gain formal acceptance and recognition. The Royal Navy for example this year changed its policy to allow Rastafari seamen to keep their hair and beards.

Brendan Koerner asked in a 2010 piece Rastafari and Quakers in The Atlantic:

Can a faith that once rejected human government as hopelessly wicked ever settle into a peaceful symbiosis with existing institutions? If there’s a model for the Rastafari movement’s future, it may be the Quakers.

In Bath the regional priest Ras Bandele Selassie last year attended the mayor’s inter-faith reception. He responded with an invitation to the Bath interfaith group to attend the Nyabinghi celebration at Fairfield House. Bath Quakers John and the late Shelagh James attended, and were moved by the urgent devout faith of Rastafari whose Messiah had lived in this house in Bath in living memory. It was, as one Methodist participant put it, “highly significant”.

Arrangements were in hand for the – necessarily deferred – Yearly Meeting Gathering group to visit Fairfield House. The YMG theme was to have been “privilege”. Until recently our Meeting was acting under a concern about diversity. How can our Society, or our Local Meeting in Bath, understand the effect of privilege properly without diversity, and without seeing the issue through the eyes of others? Deeply buried in there – perhaps unacknowledged and unresolved – is the history which transported enslaved Africans to the Caribbean, the wealth of which built much of Bath. This is a recurrent, ever present and unresolved theme in Rastafari culture today.

HIM Haile Selassie I visits the Roman Baths.

It would seem that the two faith traditions may have much to offer each other, including locally right here in Bath. The unique legacy of the man born as Tafari Makonnen to our city is highly resonant and significant. At a stroke it could transform Bath from a city that is gently ridiculed for its lack of diversity and at best quietly guilty about a past it would rather not confront to a place with transformative potential for multi-faith and multi-racial forward-looking work. HIM’s prescriptions on diversity, equality, truth and peace reach different audiences and resonate with our own.

The contemporary life of Fairfield House offers an admirable model of secular compassionate social care. The Rastafari should feel at home among all the faiths in Bath, and especially among the Friends. The two traditions are distinct and will remain so, but do seem to have echoes and much to offer each other. The building this Ethiopian Emperor gifted to the people of Bath is neglected and his intangible legacy has immense but as yet largely unrealised potential. Surely we are called to recognise and respond to that.

• This article derived from a series of conversations and programs made for the In Our City programme on Imperial Voice radio. These programmes are archived here.

Thanks to the Imperial Voice collaborators and Friends who commented most helpfully on the draft. You can listen to Imperial Voice Radio, streaming from HIM’s house here or in the global Radio Garden here.

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