John Aldham Robarts was born on 2 November 1901 in Waterloo, Ontario, to Aldham Wilson Robarts and Rachel Montgomery Campbell Robarts. An extraordinary thread of dedication to serving God seems to have been woven into the fabric of Robarts’ life. His great-grandmother gave birth to a son during a hurricane in Barbados, in the only safe place available to her: an old bake-oven that was partially underground. At the height of the storm, she made a vow that if she and her baby were spared, she would dedicate its life to the service of God.
As if in fulfilment of that promise, her son grew up to become the Reverend Thomas Tempest Robarts, a Canon of the Anglican Church in Thorold, Ontario. He had three sons and two daughters. The third son, Aldham Wilson Robarts, John Robarts’ father, remained an Anglican. The two daughters, Ella and Grace Robarts, became Bahá’ís in 1906, when John was five years old.
Aldham Wilson Robarts was the manager of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay), and it was in this community that John Robarts and his two older sisters completed their elementary schooling. He attended Ridley College in St. Catharines, Ontario, leaving at the age of 17 to accept a position as secretary to a superintendent of the Canadian National Railways. He quickly acquired a proficiency in secretarial skills that proved invaluable to him in the years to come. He went on to start his own business in partnership with James D. Graham, founding the Overhead Door Company of Canada in Toronto.
John Robarts married Audrey FitzGerald in 1928, and they had four children. The economic depression forced him to sell his company in 1934, but he managed to find employment for each of his approximately 20 workers before accepting an invitation to join a life insurance company. It was in the 1930s that John and Audrey became attracted to the Bahá’í Faith; they became Bahá’ís in 1937 in Toronto.
From that time forward, John Robarts dedicated himself to the Bahá’í Faith and served it with the deepest devotion. He played a key role in developing the first Bahá’í communities of Hamilton and Ottawa, Ontario, travelling to Hamilton every week for a year, and to Ottawa for a number of weekends. The first Local Spiritual Assemblies of Hamilton and Ottawa were formed in 1940 and 1948, respectively.
Robarts travelled to many countries, but perhaps his most significant journey was the one he and Audrey made in October 1953 to Bechuanaland (Botswana) in Africa — a trip inspired by Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith. Within two months of hearing of Bechuanaland from Shoghi Effendi, and having learned from an encyclopedia that it was a landlocked country the size of France, without paved roads and mostly Kalahari desert, they set sail. They parted with their two eldest sons and left behind John’s successful career and their comfortable Toronto home. They were the first Bahá’ís to live in Bechuanaland. John, Audrey and their youngest son, Patrick, earned the title of “Knights of Bahá’u’lláh” — a distinction granted to the first Bahá’ís to settle in a country.
On 2 October 1957, Shoghi Effendi bestowed upon John Robarts the distinguished title of “Hand of the Cause of God.”
John Robarts traveled widely and shared the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith wherever he went. His travels included Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Morocco, Liberia, Cameroon, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Hawaii, Jamaica, Iceland, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, Fiji, Tonga, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, New Hebrides and Western Samoa.
In 1984, at the age of 82, Robarts accepted one last administrative post: serving as a member of the Local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Rawdon, Quebec.
His half century of sustained service to the Bahá’í Faith provides compelling testimony to the power of the promised assistance of God. Few people realized that Robarts coped with asthma, chronic bronchitis and, later, emphysema for much of his life. Increasingly, Audrey accompanied him on his travels. He passed away peacefully in Rawdon, Quebec, on 18 June 1991.
* Adapted from Bahá’í World, Vol. 20, 1986-1992, “In Memoriam,” pp. 801-9.
Early Canadian Bahá’ís
The Bahá’í community has a rich history of members who have contributed greatly to their society as well as to the early development of the Bahá’í community in Canada and the world.