Ermane Lowell Johnson devoted most of his long life to development of the Baha’i Faith in South Africa, and during that time became well-known and respected as a national radio personality.
He wrote several books on Baha’i topics, the most recent a work on CD-ROM, in collaboration with Edith Segen Johnson, about heroes of the Baha’i Faith in southern Africa in the 1950s.
Lowell passed away in Johannesburg, South Africa, on April 25, 2012, only days before his 92nd birthday.
In a message of tribute to the National Spiritual Assembly of South Africa, the Universal House of Justice wrote in part: “We were grieved to learn of the passing of dearly loved Lowell Johnson. His nearly six decades of service as a stalwart promoter of the Cause throughout southern Africa are remembered with deep appreciation. His dedication to the Cause of God, devotion to the Covenant, love of Africa and its peoples, enthusiasm for teaching, more than thirty years of membership on your National Spiritual Assembly, and extensive efforts to document the history of the early years of the Faith in the region, are enduring testament to a life of consecrated service.”
Born in 1920 in Ethan, South Dakota, he was brought up in the Mitchell and Spearfish areas. As a staff sergeant in the Signal Corps of the U.S. Army, he earned a Bronze Star for service as a radio operator in World War II. Later he amplified his radio experience with a master’s degree in broadcast and drama at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
While teaching broadcast writing and announcing at Syracuse University in western New York, Lowell discovered and embraced the Baha’i Faith in 1949. He soon became an enthusiastic teacher of the Faith, and over the next few years was appointed to national Baha’i committees for radio and proclamation, as well as the committee overseeing Green Acre Baha’i School — while also serving on the Local Spiritual Assembly of Syracuse.
In 1952 he married Edith Segen, a fellow Baha’i, and soon they were exploring the possibility of locating to another country to help the development of the Faith, in response to an appeal by Shoghi Effendi, then the head of the Faith. In 1953 they moved as Baha’i pioneers to Cape Town, South Africa.
Within a few months Lowell had his first broadcasting job. Over more than three decades, in Cape Town and later in Johannesburg, he cultivated a national following on the South African Broadcasting Corporation as an announcer for jazz programs as well as in the dramatic arts.
Early in their residency, Shoghi Effendi conveyed instructions that teaching and development of the Faith in South Africa must focus on indigenous Africans, through careful and discreet activities.
Edith Johnson later wrote that, as apartheid laws and white society suppressed interracial gatherings, this meant a “double life” for the Johnsons and other American and European pioneers. Edith and Lowell chose places to live where African and “colored” friends and seekers could come and go attracting little or no attention from white neighbors. She described quiet but joyous gatherings in back rooms with heavy curtains.
One reward was that in only a few years they helped establish the area’s first non-white Local Spiritual Assembly in 1958.
Beginning in 1962, Lowell was elected to the National Spiritual Assembly serving South Africa for 33 successive years, most of that time serving as secretary. The first few years, that Assembly’s area of service extended to several countries.
The Johnsons moved to Johannesburg during Lowell’s first year as secretary so he could carry out his duties as the Assembly’s chief executive. Their marriage ended during that time, but they later became collaborators on archival and writing projects.
Over the years he traveled widely to promote the Faith, as well as helping educate and consolidate Baha’i communities throughout southern and western Africa.
He was active in encouraging other Baha’is to move to South Africa, temporarily or permanently, to support the Faith’s activities. He would write correspondence, share job prospects and help people settle after their arrival.
He also frequently visited North America, spending time inspiring and educating many local communities, including some in his native South Dakota.
He wrote several books on Baha’i topics, some of which were published worldwide. They include The Eternal Covenant, on the fundamental unifying force of the Faith; Remember My Days, a story of the life of Baha’u’llah written for young people; and Reginald Turvey/Life and Art, about an artist who was also a founder of South Africa’s Baha’i community.
A glimpse of Lowell’s attitude toward international service to the Faith, and one’s relationship with God through the lens of the Baha’i teachings, is seen in an essay he wrote in the 1970s:
“Each part of the world has its own way of life, which may or may not be based upon virtue. But when a person moves into a new locality where the way of life is different, he meets new standards of morality and action, and he is forced to decide between the old and the new. It is then that he must search his soul to discover what is the truth. And he may find that he doesn’t know himself well enough to make a good choice. Then, the faults begin to show up. …
“Everything from God is good; therefore, God did not plant this fault within. It came from some experience, or was taught by someone. Or perhaps it is the other side of a virtue that has not yet been developed. But, the way to find out is to pray and meditate — especially meditate. … Compare present actions with the standards upheld by Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Little by little a person will begin to understand himself better, and virtue will grow.”