Born in Canada in 1910 to William Sutherland Maxwell and May Ellis Bolles Maxwell, Mary (later to become known as Ruhiyyih Khanum) had the most illustrious of Baha'i parents. From her earliest childhood she was active in teaching the Faith. She was two years old when 'Abdu'l-Baha was a guest in her parent's home, 716 Pine Avenue, Montreal, Canada (now 1548 Pine Avenue). At the age of nine she was one of several youths chosen to read portions of the first and second Tablets to Canada of the ‘Tablets of the Divine Plan’ to the 1919 Annual Convention in New York.
Mary Maxwell made two pilgrimages, once in 1923 with her mother and again three years later with friends of her mother. She made a third life-changing pilgrimage in 1937. It was during this visit that Shoghi Effendi asked Mrs. Maxwell for her daughter's hand in marriage. The marriage took place on 25 March 1937. Ruhiyyih Khanum describes it in these words:
“No one, with the exception of his parents, my parents and a brother and two sisters of his living in Haifa, knew it was to take place. He felt strongly urged to keep it a secret, knowing from past experience how much trouble any major event in the Cause invariably stirred up. It was therefore a stunning surprise to both the servants and the local Baha'is when his chauffeur drove him off, with me beside him, to visit the Holy Tomb of Baha'u'llah on the afternoon of 25 March 1937. His heart drew him to that Most Sacred Spot on earth at such a moment in his life . . . When we arrived at Bahji and entered the Shrine he requested me to give him his ring, which I was still wearing concealed about my neck, and this he placed on the ring-finger of my right hand, the same finger that corresponded to the one of his own on which he himself had always worn it. This was the only gesture he made. He entered the inner Shrine, beneath the floor of which Baha'u'llah is interred, and gathered up in a handkerchief all the dried petals and flowers that the keeper of the Shrine used to take from the threshold and place in a silver receptacle at the feet of Baha'u'llah. After he had chanted the Tablet of Visitation we came back to Haifa and in the room of the Greatest Holy Leaf our actual marriage took place. . . . Except for this visit, the day he told me he had chosen to confer this great honour on me, and one or two brief moments in the Western Pilgrim House when he came over for dinner, I had never been alone with the Guardian. There was no celebration, no flowers, no elaborate ceremony, no wedding dress, no reception. His mother and father, in compliance with the laws of Baha'u'llah, signified their consent by signing our marriage certificate and then I went back to the Western Pilgrim House across the street and joined my parents (who had not been present at any of these events), and Shoghi Effendi went to attend to his own affairs. At dinner-time, quite as usual, the Guardian appeared, showering his love and congratulations on my mother and father. He took the handkerchief, full of such precious flowers, and with his inimitable smile gave them to my mother, saying he had brought them for her from the inner Shrine of Baha'u'llah. My parents also signed the marriage certificate and after dinner and these events were over I walked home with Shoghi Effendi, my suitcases having been taken across the street by Fujita while we were at dinner. We sat for a while with the Guardian's family and then went up to his two rooms which the Greatest Holy Leaf had had built for him so long ago.”
“The quietness, the simplicity, the reserve and dignity with which this marriage took place did not signify that the Guardian considered it an unimportant event-on the contrary. Over his mother's signature, but drafted by the Guardian, the following cable was sent to America: ‘Announce Assemblies celebration marriage beloved Guardian. Inestimable honour conferred upon handmaid of Baha'u'llah Ruhiyyih Khanum Miss Mary Maxwell. Union of East and West proclaimed by Baha'i Faith cemented. Ziaiyyih mother of Guardian.’ A telegram similar to this was sent to Persia. This news, so long awaited, naturally produced great rejoicing amongst the Baha'is, and messages flooded in to Shoghi Effendi from all parts of the world.” [Priceless Pearl p. 152]
On 28 March 1937 the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada cabled "Joyously Acclaim Historic Event so Auspiciously Uniting in Eternal Bond the Destiny of East and West." Shoghi Effendi himself replied formally, "Deeply moved your message. Institution Guardianship, head cornerstone Administrative Order Cause Baha'u'llah, already ennobled through its organic connection with Persons of Twin Founders Baha'i Faith, is now further reinforced through direct association with West and particularly with American believers, whose spiritual destiny is to usher in World Order Baha'u'llah. For my part desire congratulate community American believers on acquisition tie vitally binding them to so weighty an organ of their Faith.”
'Amatu'l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum wrote that "although I was from the West Shoghi Effendi desired me to fit into the pattern of the life in his house-which was a very oriental one-as naturally and inconspicuously as possible and I was only too happy to comply with his wishes in every way." This could not have been an easy transition, and it is undoubtedly a testament to her faith, strength of character, and deep and abiding love for her husband that she adjusted to life in an oriental household. Apart from accompanying Shoghi Effendi when he traveled overseas, she remained in Haifa at his side. Moreover, until his death in 1957 she served not only as his secretary and trusted confidant, but in Shoghi Effendi's own words, his "helpmate," "shield," and "tireless collaborator in the arduous tasks I shoulder."
On 9 January 1951 the International Baha'i Council was appointed by Shoghi Effendi with 'Amatu'l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum as liaison member between Shoghi Effendi and the Council. On 26 March, 1952, following the death of her father, she was appointed, in his stead, a Hand of the Cause: "With sorrowful heart announce through national assemblies that Hand of Cause of Baha'u'llah, highly esteemed, dearly beloved Sutherland Maxwell, has been gathered into the glory of the Abha Kingdom. . . . The mantle of Hand of Cause now falls upon the shoulders of his distinguished daughter, 'Amatu'l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum, who has already rendered and is still rendering manifold no less meritorious self-sacrificing services at World Center of Faith of Baha'u'llah."
Among her first tasks as a Hand was attending the Intercontinental Teaching Conference in Chicago-Wilmette, Illinois, April-May 1953 as Shoghi Effendi's representative. After his passing, she fulfilled his wish that she should be his representative at the second Intercontinental Conference in Kampala, Uganda, in January 1958.
After the death of Shoghi Effendi in 1957 until the election of the Universal House of Justice in April 1963, she was a member of the Nine Hands of the Cause resident in the Holy Land and continued to live in the Haparsim Street, Haifa, home of 'Abdu'l-Baha until her own death in 2000. A year after Shoghi Effendi's passing she supervised the construction of the monument at his grave in the New Southgate Cemetery, London. During this period she began to attend a series of meetings as representative of the World Centre of the Faith: conference of European Hands of the Cause, Copenhagen, 1959; conventions of United States and Canada, 1960; dedication of Baha'i Houses of Worship, Kampala, in January and Sydney, Australia, in September 1961. She toured centers in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanganyika, in January-February 1961, and centers in Australia, Malaya, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Burma, in September-October 1961. She attended the European Hands of the Cause conference in Luxembourg, December 1962.
She traveled almost unceasingly, bringing the Message of Baha'u'llah and the love of Shoghi Effendi to as many of the world peoples as possible - from the highest in the land to the most primitive of villagers in the remotest of areas. Notable among these travels were trips to India, Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, Africa, Europe, and Central and South America. She visited places where neither Baha'i teachers nor Hands of the Cause had been. Commencing in February 1964 she traveled almost 55,000 miles in nine months in India. This took her to all but three states and included visits to some remote and almost extinct tribes; she was alsoreceived by the president, the prime minister and many notables, distinguished officials, and leaders of thought. She also attended several conventions and broke off her visit to the Indian subcontinent to attend the dedication of the Mother Temple (Mashriqu'l-Adhkar) of Europe in Frankfurt, Germany, in July. In 1967 she visited Sikkim, India, and the Indian Ocean islands of Reunion, Madagascar, and Mauritius, and in 1972 she visited the Seychelles. During this period she also attended the Intercontinental Conference in Panama (1967), after which she spent seven months visiting the tribal areas of Panama, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Venezuela, Colombia, and Brazil. These trips often took place under the most arduous conditions, including transport by truck or jeep, on foot or horseback, along tortuous mountain trails at high altitudes, sometimes in rain and mud, often sleeping in the most primitive houses in hammocks or on the floor. In 1968 she visited Surinam and Guyana. From 1970 to 1973 she made four journeys throughout Africa, which became known as "The Great Safari." Interrupted only by visits to other parts of the world to attend functions of historic importance to the Baha'i world, she visited most parts of East, West, South, and Central Africa. She was by then in her mid-sixties and drove her Land Rover for well over half of the 36,000 miles of her journeys. It was during this period that she penned the series of poems, perhaps best described as a crie-de-coeur expression of her grief at the passing of her husband and Guardian, later published as Poems of the Passing.
Between 1973 and 1976, she visited India, Bangladesh, Burma, Hong Kong, the United States, and Canada. In 1975-1976, showing characteristic courage and audacity, at the age of 73, by which time she had already visited 109 countries, she was accompanied by a team of filmmakers on her epic voyage up the tributaries of the Amazon Basin and onward to the mountains ranges of Peru and Bolivia to visit the indigenous tribes of those regions. The film of this arduous and undoubtedly dangerous trip was later released as a two-hour documentary, ‘The Green Light Expedition’, with English, Spanish, and Persian commentaries. In August 1976 she attended the largest International Conference to date when over 6,000 Baha'is met in Paris. After this she spent some time in Bermuda and in 1977 returned to India, followed by visits to Australia and an eight-month round-the-world trip culminating with a nine-week tour of Australasia, when she represented the Universal House of Justice at the laying of the foundation stone of the Baha'i House of Worship in Samoa.
Her travels continued, and in 1980 she visited Europe and Canada, where she directed, edited, and narrated a two-hour documentary film she had written entitled The Pilgrimage, an attempt on her part to allow those unable to undertake an actual pilgrimage to the Holy Land to view vicariously several of the Holy Places as well as several precious archives in her personal care.
January 1981 found her attending a conference for members of the Continental Board of Counsellors in Panama followed by a tour of Central America and the Caribbean, where she was received by many dignitaries and a host of tribal villagers. She then completed an almost one-year tour of the Americas with a visit to Canada. Commencing 11 August 1982 she went on a tour of Canada, Greenland, and Iceland, where again she was well received by many dignitaries and senior officials and met with many hundreds of North American Indians and Eskimos. After visiting conferences and centers in Europe in mid-1983, she set out on an extensive tour of Asia and Australasia in April 1984, which included the dedication of the Samoan Temple (Mashriqu'l-Adhkar). In January 1985, after more visits to South America and Panama, she was in New York by 22 November to present the newly released "peace statement," entitled ‘The Promise of World Peace’ to the secretary-general of the United Nations. In 1988, at the age of 78, she undertook a grand tour of China and Mongolia. In 1992 she visited the republics of the USSR.
Throughout her travels, in her lectures, and using her personal funds, she actively campaigned for the protection of the environment. She associated with the top officials of the World Wide Fund for Nature, and at St. James's Palace, London, on 28 July 1994 she shared the platform with HRH The Duke of Edinburgh at a World Forestry Charter gathering.
Her books include the insightful study of her husband's life and mission, ‘The Priceless Pearl’ and its sister volumes, ‘The Guardian of the Baha'i Faith’; ‘Twenty five Years of Guardianship’; and her compilations of the letters and cables of the Hands of the Cause of God during the interregnum years, ‘The Ministry of the Custodians 1957-1963’
As the "First Lady" of the Baha'i Faith, she continued to travel from the Holy Land to attend special historic gatherings and to teach and proclaim the Faith of Baha'u'llah until near the end of her long life. She passed away on 19 January 2000 in the Haparsim Street, Haifa House of 'Abdu'l-Baha that had been her home since her marriage to Shoghi Effendi in 1937. On her passing the Universal House of Justice issued the following message to the Baha'is of the world on 19 January 2000:
“In the early hours of this morning, the soul of 'Amatu'l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum, beloved consort of Shoghi Effendi and the Baha'i world's last remaining link with the family of 'Abdu'l-Baha, was released from the limitations of this earthly existence. In the midst of our grief, we are sustained by our confidence that she has been gathered to the glory of the Concourse on High in the presence of the Abha Beauty.
For all whose hearts she touched so deeply, the sorrow that this irreparable loss brings will, in God's good time, be assuaged in awareness of the joy that is hers through her reunion with the Guardian and with the Master, Who had Himself prayed in the Most Holy Shrine that her parents be blessed with a child. Down the centuries to come, the followers of Baha'u'llah will contemplate with wonder and gratitude the quality of the services - ardent, indomitable, resourceful - that she brought to the protection and promotion of the Cause.
In her youth, 'Amatu'l-Baha had already distinguished herself through her activities in North America, and later, both with her dear mother and on her own, she had rendered valuable service to the Cause in Europe. Her twenty years of intimate association with Shoghi Effendi evoked from his pen such accolades as "my helpmate," "my shield," "my tireless collaborator in the arduous tasks I shoulder." To these tributes he added in 1952 his decision to elevate her to the rank of Hand of the Cause of God, after the death of her illustrious father.
The devastating shock of the beloved Guardian's passing steeled her resolve to lend her share, with the other Hands of the Cause, to the triumph of the Ten Year Crusade, and subsequently to undertake, with characteristic intrepidity, her historic worldwide travels.
A life so noble in its provenance, so crucial to the preservation of the Faith's integrity, and so rich in its dedicated, uninterrupted and selfless service, moves us to call for befitting commemorations by Baha'I communities on both national and local levels, as well as for special gatherings in her memory in all Houses of Worship.
With yearning hearts, we supplicate at the Holy Threshold for infinite heavenly bounties to surround her soul, as she assumes her rightful and well-earned position among the exalted company in the Abha Kingdom.” [The Universal House of Justice]
She was interred opposite the House of 'Abdu'l-Baha in a plot adjacent to the Western Pilgrim House. In a tribute published in The Baha'i World 1999-2000, Mrs. Violette Nakhjavani summarized her funeral proceedings: "Her funeral was held in the central hall of the Master's House. The two Hands of the Cause were present, together with members of the Universal House of Justice, the Counsellor members of the International Teaching Centre, and twenty-four Continental Counsellors from all over the world. Also attending were her family members and representatives from seventy-six National Spiritual Assemblies, senior officials from the Canadian and United States embassies, representatives of the Israeli government, the mayors of Haifa and Acre, other prominent Israeli citizens, and special invited guests. Following the readings and the chanting of the Prayer for the Dead, she left for the last time that house which she had entered as a bride sixty-three years before. Her coffin was carried out by members of the Universal House of Justice, then borne across the street and lowered into its vault by believers representing a variety of ethnic origins. Almost one thousand people, including pilgrims and volunteers serving at the Baha'i World Centre, stood outside her home, in the closed-off street and in the garden where her grave had been prepared. The interior of the grave was carpeted on all sides with hundreds of roses and carnations, just as she had arranged for her beloved Shoghi Effendi forty-two years before. And as the rain poured down, more prayers were recited and chanted before her casket was lowered into the ground. The rainstorm that began the night she passed away finally subsided to a drizzle as her precious remains were laid to rest.'' (Adapted from the ‘Historical Dictionary of the Baha’i Faith’ by Hugh Adamson)