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Community Histories, by Richard Hollinger:
Review

by Graham Hassall

published in Bahá'í Studies Review, 5:1, pages 95-98
London: Association for Baha'i Studies English-Speaking Europe, 1995
Community Histories (Studies in Babi and Bahá'í Religions; Volume 6)
Edited by: Richard Hollinger
Publisher: Kalimat Press, Los Angeles, 1992, 284pp., index.
Review by: Graham Hassall


This volume contains seven chapters tracing the histories of Bahá'í communities in three Western societies (an introduction, four essays focussed on the United States, and one each on Canada and Great Britain). Essays from North America consider the Bahá'í communities of Kenosha (Roger Dahl), Kansas (Duane Herrmann), Baltimore (Deb Clark) and Sacramento (Peggy Caton). Phillip Smith considers the development of Bahá'í administration in Great Britain, and Will van den Hoonaard writes about the Bahá'ís of Saint John, in Canada's New Brunswick. These chapters cover, therefore, the histories of city, provincial/state, and national communities.

As if justification were required, editor Richard Hollinger hastens to point out in his introduction that "very little has been published on the history of local Bahá'í communities" ("Introduction" vii). More broadly, it could well be argued that comparatively few studies in Bahá'í history have appeared_whether at community, national, or global level (the point is made in relation to Canada by van den Hoonaard on page 223). In 1995 there are more than one hundred "national" Bahá'í communities, a small number of which have been subject to any historical investigation, much less analysis or interpretation. In this context, the appearance of a study of the origins of a number of Bahá'í "communities" is welcome.

Hollinger's introduction addresses several important themes: leadership and decision-making in Bahá'í communities, their changing attitudes to inclusivity and exclusivity, their approaches to matters of scriptural interpretation and authority, changing boundaries of social and political action, the evolution of administrative boundaries, the capacity for products of America's culture of "rugged individualism" to work cooperatively on Assemblies and committees in mutual plans of action. An example of the difficulties faced in determining the "members" of the Bahá'í movement, for instance, as opposed to those who were in some way in close sympathy with it, occurs in classifying the situation of the British aristocrat and Christian mystic Wellesley Tudor-Pole: Hollinger, gives the impression that Tudor-Pole was a member of the British Bahá'í Community (xxi). While Hollinger makes the very necessary plea that Community Histories be regarded as "a small contribution" to the "detailed histories" that "will become essential" as the study of the Bahá'í Faith "develops as an academic field" (xxxiv-v), his introduction, which confines itself to commentary on "Bahá'í Communities in the West, 1897-1992", does not acknowledge that the "West" entails more than North America and Great Britain, let alone entertain any consideration of non-Western contributions to Bahá'í notions of "community." If we conclude, on this basis, that the work is intentionally limited to a narrow range of Western cultures, we will make a single observation on the point: because of the global aspirations of the Bahá'ís, a study of communities from such a narrow range of traditions limits its appeal. These are studies of early Bahá'í communities in the West during a period in which communities were also emerging in the continents of Africa, Asia, continental Europe, and Australasia. The inclusion of chapters on any of the communities of Germany, France, India, Australia, or Japan (to name some possibilities), would have greatly enhanced the volume by strengthening the global reach of the study, and facilitating cross-cultural comparisons and observations.

A second concern relates to the period of years considered in the book. The six studies are not disciplined to cover a common time frame. It cannot be said, for instance, that they examine the emergence of Bahá'í communities during the period to 1944, or to 1963 (to suggest two likely dates for periodisation). The delimiting of the studies in this way would have provided one source of cohesion. As they stand, van den Hoonaard's study of New Brunswick ends in 1925, Herrmann's study of Kansas in 1947, Smith's study of Great Britain in 1950, and the remaining three studies in 1980, 1990, and 1991. Thus, while the six chapters may approach internal consistency, the possibility of reading across them is interrupted. The apparent lack of a theoretical thread through the volume is an additional source of concern. A chance to offer responses to a common set of theoretical or methodological questions has thus been lost, and the collection is instead one of diverse and essentially descriptive narratives. This might have been a good opportunity to explore the Bahá'í concept of "community", and to both comment on and become informed by, current literature on "community"[1]. There is certainly a need for Bahá'ís to explore the phases that communities may face the possibility of experiencing, and consideration of community histories is one way to acquire such knowledge.

In addition to such correlation with literature in the social sciences, the volume offered the opportunity to treat Bahá'í histories in the context of the literatures of the sociology of religion, and the history of religions. Smith, for instance, commences his study suggesting that the British Bahá'ís emerged in the context of millenialism. Clark, in contrast, does not contextualise the origins of the Baltimore Bahá'ís. Consequently the psychology, beliefs and motivations of Pearl Doty "the first Bahá'í in the city and the unofficial leader of the community during its first years" (112) are no clearer than those of adherents in subsequent periods. We know, however, that the understandings available to the Bahá'ís concerning the nature and purpose of the mission and revelation of Bahá'u'lláh advanced considerably during successive phases of the Apostolic and Formative ages_that is, during the Ministries of 'Abdu'l- Baha and Shoghi Effendi. In writing of the British Bahá'ís, Smith shows how this slowly maturing consciousness of the purpose of the Bahá'í movement/religion/faith could inform arrangements for individual and collective action:

This feeling, that the establishment of local Spiritual Assemblies was not just some bureaucratic whim, but part of the unfolding plan of God for bringing peace to the world, helps to explain why so many British Bahá'ís were willing to devote their lives to achieving the goals of the Six-Year Plan. Pioneering and teaching were expressions of their religious belief and commitment. (208)
Such descriptions of the evolving intellectual and doctrinal context of Bahá'í action help to contextualise events which may otherwise appear unremarkable_particularly where they are occuring in unfamiliar locations, by otherwise unknown participants. These chapters do contribute, it should be noted, some original material based on interviews with participants, local press, and a small number of regional Bahá'í histories (whether published or in manuscript, the details of which are unfortunately embedded in endnotes rather than made accessible in one or several bibliographies). One further surprise to this reviewer was the lack of attention given by the authors of the North American chapters to the influence of national teaching plans on their subject matter (it is left to Smith, writing of Great Britain, to refer to the first systematic propagation plan in North America, 1937-44; van den Hoonaard's chapter on New Brunswick considered an earlier period). One would have thought that either this plan, or those succeeding it, would have had a significant impact on the activities of each of the communities under review. A National Assembly had been established in the United States and Canada in 1925 (from which Canada established its own in 1948), and Bahá'í communities throughout North, South and Central America conducted a series of plans from the late 1930s which provided a model for subsequent plans on other continents. The first "Seven Year Plan" (1937- 44) established at least one centre in each state and province of North America, and in every Republic of Latin America. By the end of the second plan, 1946-53, there were 200 Local Spiritual Assemblies in North America, and some 60 groups in Latin America. Separately, plans were undertaken by the Bahá'ís of Canada, 1948-53, and Central America, 1952- 53. National Assemblies were established in Central and South America in 1951. Again, one would have thought that the requirements of the Ten Year World Crusade, 1953-1963_whether those concerning expansion, or consolidation, would have affected community histories in some significant way. Yet these chapters narrate incidents from this epic period with no reference to the "Crusade"_something seemingly impossible given the impact of this period on the labours of the Bahá'í community world wide. Given the global spread of the Bahá'í Faith, one hopes that subsequent volumes will include studies of a broader range of communities. Apart from these concerns, Community Histories is indeed a welcome contribution to the literature of Bahá'í history, and provides a valuable foundation for further industry.


Note:

    1. Of considerable interest, for instance, is the volume On Community, edited by Leroy Rouner (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991).
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