Early Tacoma Bahá’ís – Elizabeth Johnson, Part 1

Elizabeth Johnson at age 25

“It’s wonderful to be able to ask this kind of service and immediately get a ‘yes’ answer, and know it’s going to be done.” A life of devotion and service is summarized in

this line from a postscript of a letter, expressing personal and heartfelt appreciation for publicity arrangements made for a Bahá’í visitor.  Filed away, unseen and unknown, this “thank you” stands, for us, as  tribute to one of the homefront pioneers and founders of the Bahá’í Faith in Tacoma. Elizabeth Johnson, the latter half of her long life, served her Lord to sustain and build the religious community of her adopted town. She did the ordinary, unpretentious, little things that need to be done. She helped set up meetings for guest speakers. She wrote and delivered news items or announcements of events to the daily newspaper. She corresponded with pioneers of the Faith she had never met who were serving the Faith in places she had never been. She helped the ill and needy. 


            Little is know of the first half of Elizabeth’s life. Born Elizabeth Bergren in Sweden on June 4, 1895, she immigrated to the United States in 1916 and worked as a domestic servant in the homes of Chicago families. She was five feet six inches tall and had brown hair and blue eyes. We don’t know if she had family in the United States prior to her arrival, although years later she did have sisters living in Minneapolis.  Who her friends were, what she did in her leisure time, whether she had a boyfriend or loved someone, what her ambitions may have been and what her disappointments were: these important and personal aspects of the first forty-five years of her life we know nothing about. And, perhaps it does not matter that we don’t know. We all live with the struggles and pleasures and pains of life. What Elizabeth did have in her life that makes her worth remembering is that she came to recognize her Lord and spent her life serving Him and helping others. This began about 1940.


            That great and silent teacher of the Faith, the Temple in Wilmette (a suburb of Chicago) may have been what first attracted her curiosity to the Faith. She saw it being built a little at a time as the finances of the small North American Bahá’í community allowed. How she came to inquire about the Faith and what type of meeting she first attended, we don’t know. Her teacher was an early and well-known American believer, Albert Windust. But, her spiritual father, a man who remained special to her for the rest of her life, was Harvey Nied. 


            We have the following information from Elizabeth about her spiritual forebears. Harvey Nied entered the Faith about 1939, while living in Florida and making a living doing Swedish massage. He studied the Faith from Dr. Zia Bagdadi and later in Chicago from Albert Windust. In 1940 Mr. Nied became ill while attending a Bahá’í summer school in Flint, Michigan. After being first taken to a county hospital, he was transferred to a Veterans Affairs hospital for mental patients in Elgin, Illinois. Mr. Nied’s sister,

with help from Elizabeth, was able to have him released from the V.A. hospital so that he could receive treatment elsewhere, and also arranged for him to receive social security benefits. Elizabeth helped care for him on behalf of his legal guardian by taking him to the doctor, buying his clothes, and doing other little things for him to make his life more pleasant.   


            Elizabeth moved to Tacoma in 1943, and Mr. Nied (apparently afterward) moved to Portland, Oregon to work at a shipyard. Sometime later he was found in a mission in Seattle, unable to care for himself. He had a legal guardian from the LaSalle Bank who contacted Elizabeth and asked her to help find him. Apparently she did so, for in 1941 she was able to help him obtain a veteran’s pension of $40 per month. The LaSalle Bank served as the guardian of his money. This is a brief and incomplete history of two dear

friends. It does create questions. Presumably, Elizabeth left for the West Coast before Mr. Nied. Did Mr. Nied go to the West Coast because his friend, Elizabeth, was there? If he did, then why didn’t he go to Tacoma? And how was Elizabeth able to find him? We shall never know.


            Eventually, Harvey Nied was admitted into the V.A. hospital for mental patients near Tacoma (at American Lake in Lakewood, Washington). At one time he was boarded out to a family, but was re-admitted into the hospital after he walked away from them. He was moved to a nursing home in 1965, receiving a V.A. pension and social security, and spent the rest of his life in various nursing homes. Elizabeth (and her husband, John, until his passing) would go see him often and help care for him. For years, she did numerous things to make his life more comfortable: she brought him food, fed him when he could not feed himself, did his laundry, and washed him. Harvey Eugene Nied, born May 2, 1892, left this world on November 27, 1972, and following a funeral service in Tacoma was laid to rest at the Willamette National Cemetery in Oregon. 


            This brief account of the life of Harvey Nied, together with the fact that, late in her life, Elizabeth was motivated to record something for posterity about the man who was her spiritual father, tells us as much about Elizabeth as it does about Mr. Nied. She was devoted to him, and she loved and cared for the man who helped her find the Bahá’í Faith. Others were aware of her devotion. One friend, consoling her over Mr. Nied’s passing, wrote that “Though he was alone in the isolated world of the mind, he could not have had a more devoted friend to see him through than you, Elizabeth. For twenty-eight years you have been his only mainstay here in Tacoma, as I know. Only you understood what a gentle, well educated gentlemen, Harvey Nied was and only you, Elizabeth, understood in some spiritual way what bound you to him, to help and stand by him.”


Elizabeth with unidentified man. Possibly Chicago 1932.


            Elizabeth became a Bahá’í in 1941 or 1942, while living in Chicago. She left there in 1943 and moved to Tacoma to help with the teaching and proclamation efforts. She married John A. Johnson, a railroad employee, in Tacoma that same year, marrying for the first time (as far as we know) at age 48.  She did, however, maintain her ties to Chicago. She may have attended the Bahá’í Centenary Banquet in that city, because her papers include a program card from that banquet: guest speakers included Albert Windust and Elsie Austin. And, she visited her life-long friend from that area, Betty Edwards, in 1950, as indicated by a clipping from a mimeographed Bahá’í newsletter that she kept that referred to her visit.  Undated newspaper and magazine clippings, which may be from 1947, show her husband, John, a train fireman, dressed in white tie, tails, and top hat, posing proudly with the conductor and engineer on the new Olympian Hiawatha, a new passenger train that the reader is told will operate on a 45 hour schedule between Chicago and Seattle. Did John Johnson’s career have something to do with how he and Elizabeth met and why she decided to marry him? Did her marriage allow this frugal Swede to make trips to Chicago at a reduced fare? The decision to marry can be complex. One can only speculate.


            Elizabeth collected newspaper clippings about Bahá’í activities in Tacoma and elsewhere, especially during the late 1940’s and throughout the 1950’s. There are so many clippings, in fact, that she may have collected virtually every item that appeared in the newspaper about the Faith. Most of them probably got there because of her active work.

Elizabeth knew how to get things done. She often delivered some of her baked goods to the appropriate newspaper staff, along with that valuable item about the Faith, in order to enhance the likelihood of the item being published.


            The articles reveal her interest in and commitment to the affairs of the Faith. Here are some examples. The assassination of Count Folke Bernadotte (a nephew of the King of Sweden) in Jerusalem in September, 1948, where he was working to settle the Arab-Israeli dispute on behalf of the United Nations, provoked Elizabeth to write a letter about his death that appeared in Tacoma’s daily paper, The News Tribune. She writes several paragraphs condemning the senseless violence, and concludes by mentioning Bahá’u’lláh and quoting briefly from His Writings. Another example: the society column of the Tacoma newspaper for October 18, 1949, relates that the 130th anniversary of the Birth of the Báb will be held at her home on Thursday at 8 p.m. at 414 South Tacoma Avenue.  Also: The News Tribune’s June 6, 1955 edition carries an article about Elizabeth, as secretary of the Tacoma Bahá’ís, writing a letter to President Eisenhower asking him to use his influence to prevent further persecutions of Bahá’ís in Iran.  Many newspaper articles announce local holy day observances and guest speakers, and there are occasional letters to the editor by Elizabeth.


            She was not reluctant to defend her beloved homeland. Elizabeth was proud of her Swedish heritage. A letter to the editor appears in the August 3, 1949 Tacoma newspaper in which she defends her country against a perceived slight by an Anthony J. Corvin, made in another letter to the editor that appeared in the July 27 edition. The nature of the insult is not clear; apparently he said something uncomplimentary about the Italians, Irish, Jews, Slavs, and the Swedish people. Elizabeth was shocked, however, and her  proud defense is stirring, praising the Swedes’ cleanliness, healthful habits, thrift, and fresh food: “I was told in Chicago that travelers in Sweden found smorgasbord out of this world and parks very clean. You don’t have nerve to throw your cigaret in the parks. Swedish people don’t like installments on automobiles so they go bicycling. If you go to Stockholm, you find the 91-year-old King bicycling.”; and “Where in Sweden will you find vermin-ridden huts and sour soups.”  She concludes her patriotic defense by appealing to universal brotherhood, stating that “I am looking for a universal language, one common script, the unity of thought in world’s undertakings, the unity of religion, the unity of nations, the unity of races, making of all that dwell on earth, peoples and kindreds of one race.” That plain spokenness was characteristic of Elizabeth.

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