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Origins of the Bahá'í Community of Canada 1898-1948, The, by Will C. van den Hoonaard:
Review

by Graham Hassall

published in Bahá'í Studies Review, 7, pages 104-106
London: Association for Baha'i Studies English-Speaking Europe, 1997
The Origins of the Bahá'í Community of Canada, 1898-1948
Author: Will C. van den Hoonaard
Published by: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1996
Pages: xii + 356, 39 b&w photos. ISBN: 0-88920-272-9. Cloth cover: $39.95
Review by Graham Hassall


Canadians first encountered the Bahá'í teachings in Chicago in 1893, while attending the World Parliament of Religions at which the Reverend Jessup delivered his now well-known reference to the founder of the Faith, Bahá'u'lláh. Between 1925 and 1947 Canada formed part of the national assembly of the United States and Canada. An independent national assembly was established in 1948 and incorporated in 1949. It was one of twelve national assemblies that participated in the ten year world crusade. By the 1990s the Canadian Bahá'í community numbered more than 15,000. Will C. van den Hoonaard, a professor of sociology at the University of New Brunswick, has written a detailed account of the Canadian Bahá'í community, from its first stages at the end of the last century, until the formation of its national spiritual assembly in 1948. van den Hoonaard has organised his material around four themes: "Early Dependence on Liberal Protestantism", "Formation of Community Identity, 1913-37", "Organization and Community Boundaries", and "Relationship to Canadian Society". The text is accompanied by five appendices, ranging from summaries of press reports, to statistical overviews, community profiles, a chronology of "Important Canadian Bahá'í dates", and a note on sources.

Although The Origins of the Bahá'í Community of Canada is in one sense a narration of the history of the community, it could be described more fully as historical religious sociology. As history, the study redresses earlier mis-remembrances of important events, and establishes the story of the first believers and the small communities of which they were a part. As sociology, it explores the means by which a non-Christian and new religious tradition presented itself in Canadian society, and how this essentially conservative society chose to respond. In each of its principal objectives the book is undoubtedly successful. van den Hoonaard has placed his investigation in the context of existing studies of new religious movements in Canada and, having reviewed them, notes the lack of reference to Canadian Bahá'í history in both the new religious movement literature, and in Bahá'í literature in general.

The methodological soundness of the book gives The Origins of the Bahá'í Community of Canada an added dimension. In introductory notes van den Hoonaard explains how his manuscript was read by a cross section of individuals whose stories appear in it, in addition to a cross section of other readers, to ensure that the completed work benefited from the insights of differing genders and generations. (This reviewer can think of several Bahá'í biographies of recent years that would have benefited greatly from wider manuscript review prior to publication.)

In van den Hoonaard's submission, the unconscious processes by which any community accumulates an awareness and understanding of its past, have, in the Canadian instance, created several wrong impressions. For example, there was always considerable Bahá'í activity outside the major centres of Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, which this book restores to memory; there were interesting individuals in the community apart from the famed May Maxwell, whom the book gives deserved and balanced recollection. The most intriguing correction, however, is placed in footnote 2 to chapter 4, which concerns the visit of 'Abdu'l-Bahá to Montreal:

The official Bahá'í organ, Star of the West, did not carry any news of the celebrated visit of Abdu'l-Bahá to Montreal in 1912 until an incidental reference to the event 40 years later (Star of the West, 7[17][19 January 1917]:171-72). Yet, this visit received the most extensive publicity ever during his nine-month tour throughout North America. The news of the publicity in Canada, incidentally, did not find its way into Star of the West until 1923, more than ten years later (Star of the West, 13[13][February 1923]:291-93).(1)

Footnote 3 continues in this restorative vein, noting that official and other accounts of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's visit to Canada place his stay at between 8 and 12 days.(2) This attention to detail, and checking of source materials, is but one of the book's appealing features. However, it is only the "restorative" part of van den Hoonaard's project, and lays the framework for his analytic intent. Thus, for instance, the enumeration of press coverage of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's tour provides the source material for a content analysis of that coverage, in terms of subject matter, and assessment of the differing of treatment in the English and French press.

Later chapters assess the strategies for expansion implemented by the first Bahá'í communities, and assess the results of these strategies, in terms of ethnic composition and the former religious affiliations of the steadily expanding Canadian Bahá'í community. van den Hoonaard has identified, for instance, the religious background, gender, and ethnicity of many of the 254 members as at 1947: 75% Protestant, 12% Catholic, 7% Jewish, 4% Theosophical or Rosicrucian, and 2% other; 68% were female and 78% Anglo-Saxon, with smaller numbers of Jewish, German/Swiss, West Indian/African Canadian, and Scandinavian members. The life-stories of many early Bahá'ís are included, in addition to this cumulative data.

Part three of the book expands on the effectiveness of the activities undertaken by the Canadian Bahá'ís prior to 1937, through individual and small-group initiatives, and during the first systematic teaching plan. The community faced the competing tasks of consolidating and expanding the number of assemblies, while at the same time pioneering to new cities and towns. In 1938-39, the second year of the plan, for instance, Canadian pioneers opened seven new localities, and established the foundations for the Halifax, Calgary, Winnipeg and Regina assemblies. The fruit of van den Hoonaard's combined qualitative/quantitative approach emerges not only in his textual analysis, but in extensive tables. Appendix C, for instance, "Bahá'í Community Profiles, 21 April 1937-20 April 1947", sorts 15 localities into four categories: high growth, medium growth, slow growth, or no growth. The three "high growth" localities, Winnipeg, Hamilton and Toronto, had the highest ratios of pioneers to new Bahá'ís, the largest communities as of 1947, and among the highest numbers of new members who subsequently pioneered.

Van den Hoonaard has chosen to limit his survey to the years preceding the formation of Canada's national administrative system. Description of the relationship between the Bahá'ís of Canada and the United States is also very limited. Although chapter 10 "Changing Styles of Organisation and Boundary Maintenance" explains that the Executive Board of the Bahá'í Temple Unity--the precursor to the North American national spiritual assembly - appointed a "Regional Teaching Committee for Canada" as early as 1920, The Origins of the Bahá'í Community of Canada does not explore the functioning of this committee in any detail, nor the deliberations of the national assembly, if any, that specifically regarded Canadian issues. Although Canada sent delegates to the national convention from its earliest years, the book does not list them (A footnote [fn. 1, p. 276] notes that there were eleven Canadian delegates to national convention by 1947), nor does it discuss in detail possible issues relating to representation and the operation of the Bahá'í electoral system. Finally, the work does not appear to highlight the relationship between Shoghi Effendi and individual Canadian Bahá'ís and institutions. In the Australian context, to make a comparative note, the communication that individuals, communities, and fledgling Bahá'í institutions had with Shoghi Effendi often had considerable impact on their subsequent attitudes and behaviour, and it would be hard to write a history of the Australian Bahá'í community without constant reference to this interaction. The Origins of the Bahá'í Community of Canada does not highlight such communications in the Canadian context, leaving the reader curious, given that an earlier publication, Messages to Canada (Toronto: 1965), does not include any of Shoghi Effendi's pre-1948 correspondence except for his first message of 1923. A map would have helped non-Canadian readers to keep track of discussion of smaller towns and distant provinces. But these matters aside, The Origins of the Bahá'í Community of Canada must be regarded in overall terms as a model for analysis of emergent Bahá'í communities everywhere.


End Notes

  1. van den Hoonard, Origins 63.
  2. Ibid.
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