Right Livelihood: The Case of Thomas Breakwell

Thomas Breakwell Buddhism has a beautiful way of summarising “the good life”. It is symbolised by an eight-spoked wheel. Each spoke of the wheel represents a right way of being – qualities such as “right speech”, “right conduct” and “right mindfulness”. Among the spokes is “right livelihood” and this is where we pick up the story of Thomas Breakwell, for the principle concerns him.

Thomas Breakwell became a Baha’i in 1901, one of the earliest westerners to enter the Baha’i Faith. He was a young man aged only 30. He was born in 1872, the son of an ironmonger. He was raised a Methodist and later his family had emigrated to the United States.

In summer 1901 he was visiting Paris, and a friend, knowing his interest in spiritual topics introduced him to May Maxwell, a young teacher of the Baha’i Faith who was working to establish the Baha’i Faith in the city. May Maxwell was among the first group of Westerners to visit Abdu’l Baha in the Holy Land in 1898-9. She was the angelic singer in the first visit by westerners to the resting place of Baha’u’llah. After his first meeting with May Maxwell (during which the Baha’i Faith had not been discussed at all), Thomas Breakwell, returned to her the next day, describing a religious experience.

‘When I was here yesterday,’ he said, ‘I felt a power, an influence that I had felt once before in my life, when for a period of three months I was continually in communion with God. I felt during that time like one moving in a rarefied atmosphere of light and beauty. My heart was on fire with love for the supreme Beloved. I felt at peace, at one with all my fellow-men. Yesterday when I left you I went alone down the Champs Elysees, the air was warm and heavy, not a leaf was stirring, when 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!’

He asker her if he was going insane. She assured him he was not and told him of the Bab and Baha’u’llah. Within 3 days, Thomas Breakwell became a Baha’i. He was the first English person to do so.

In declaring his belief, he wrote to Abdu’l Baha the following words:

My Lord, I believe, forgive me,

Thy servant Thomas Breakwell.

May Maxwell wondered at his request for forgiveness.

Shortly after Thomas Breakwell was on his way to visit Abdu’l Baha.

When Thomas Breakwell met Abdu’l Baha he had a burden on his soul that he wanted to tell Abdu’l Baha.  May Maxwell records the event:

In the course of his interview with the Master, he told Him briefly of his position in the cotton mills of the South, his large salary, his responsibility, and his sudden conviction of sin, for he said, “These mills are run on child labor.” The Master looked at him gravely and sadly for a while, and then said, “Cable your resignation.” Relieved of a crushing burden, Breakwell eagerly obeyed, and with one blow cut all his bridges behind him.

child labourers - newton north carolina

Child labourers in a cotton mill in Newton North Carolina, c. 1908

The rest of Thomas Breakwell’s life was brief and meteoric, filled with love for his new faith and the world. He returned to Paris and lived in a spiritual state: a teacher of the Baha’i Faith. Within a year of becoming a Baha’i he had contracted tuberculosis and passed away in Paris. Most of the days that had remained to him he lived in poverty. Abdu’l Baha saw something in him that he wanted us to know:

Grieve thou not over the ascension of my beloved Breakwell, for he hath risen unto a rose garden of splendors within the Abhá Paradise, sheltered by the mercy of his mighty Lord, and he is crying at the top of his voice: “O that my people could know how graciously my Lord hath forgiven me, and made me to be of those who have attained His Presence!”

O Breakwell, O my dear one!

Thou hast won eternal life, and the bounty that faileth never, and a life to please thee well, and plenteous grace.

O Breakwell, O my dear one!

Thou art become a star in the supernal sky, and a lamp amid the angels of high Heaven; a living spirit in the most exalted Kingdom, throned in eternity.

O Breakwell, O my dear one! …[1]

Shoghi Effendi paid tribute to him as one of the “three luminaries” of the British Baha’i community: together with George Townsend, and John Esslemont.

Images Credits:  Picture Gallery of Early British Baha’is


May Maxwell, A Brief Account of Thomas Breakwell

Rajwantee Lakshiman-Lepain The Life of Thomas Breakwell

(This article is the 116th in a series of what I hope will be 200 articles in 200 days for the 200th anniversary of the birth of Bahá’u’lláh. The anniversary is being celebrated around the world on 21 and 22 October 2017, The articles are simply my personal reflections on Bahá’u’lláh’s life and work. Any errors or inadequacies in these articles are solely my responsibility.)


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