Research for The Origins of the Bahá'í Community of Canada,
has given me immense
satisfaction, not without some costs or pain, of course. The primary source of
satisfaction is the near primal response of Bahá'ís everywhere to
the minutiae of the many new findings regarding their own history. It seemed
as if this history released the Bahá'ís from the burden of
superficial knowledge, filled with unspoken generalizations. The book has
lifted a major stone from the ground, revealing the earth teeming with all
sorts of interesting life forms, namely the numerous stories, whether factual,
mythical, or imaginary, about some of the most prominent Bahá'ís
that are associated with the early days of the Bahá'í Faith in
Canada. Those "interesting life forms" were also the stories and accounts of
the many other Bahá'ís who for one reason or the other had chosen
to remain invisible to the succeeding generations of Bahá'ís. I
was startled by the thirst of contemporary Bahá'ís for early
history and noted how some of that thirst was quenched by these early accounts
which are now safely stored either in the book.
The search for a Canadian Bahá'í history brought into its wake a
whole set of personal relationships and an increasing awareness of my
obligation to assist and encourage others in their quest for
Bahá'í history. In some case, my research has even more deepened
my relationships to my old friends whom I came to rely on for guidance and
inspiration. No matter where the research stood, I always felt I was the
student, the learner, nervous and hesitant about my findings, some
contradictory, some humorous, some unexpected.
I also found many new kinds of friends. To use an old adage, they were
"fellow travellers," and many of these were women researchers. What started as
a lonely project, became one that involved a broader context of academic and
professional relationships that were only a joy to have.
At a futuristic level, I hope that future generations of Bahá'ís
will come to appreciate the herculean task of Deborah, my spouse, of putting
"the book" (as the research became known around our household) always up front
of her sacrifice and interest. During the ten years of research and writing, I
do not recall even one moment of hesitation on her part. While the initial
bleakness of my Canadian Bahá'í research might, perhaps, be
engulfed by some sort of recognition on the part of the Bahá'í
community, my wife Deborah will stand, I fear, in the shadow. I often think of
the remarkable fact that Bahá'u'lláh blesses those who work
invisibly for the greater good. The research and book, from my perspective,
are emotionally charged with the more profound realization of her own sacrifice
in this regard.
The story of the research for the book has the stuff of any good fiction: the
serendipidous discovery of a 1917 letter from a Bahá'í in Saint
John, New Brunswick, that was responsible for getting the whole research
underway; a mysterious communication from Robert Frost's cousin, Joseph Frost,
in Maine, who informed he had two boxes of papers and photographs of the very
first Bahá'í in Canada (some 300 sepia and black and white
photographs; and, "since you're from New Brunswick, aren't you, would you mind
my giving you a few of Marion Jack's paintings?"); the fascination with
oddities that dot our historical Bahá'í landscape ("very strange
people, indeed?"); the nervous application of a governmental research grant
(like a true Canadian); the nailbiting photo-finish of receiving support from
the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada; and the
miraculous assent by a select group of scholars who, through ASPP, have deemed
the book manuscript (after six drafts) of sufficient scholarly value to merit a
major publication grant. Wait, the landscape of Bahá'í
historical research changes its shape suddenly: who were those politicians and
suffragettes who, one time in their life laid claim to be a
Bahá'í? Who was that well-known Group of Seven Painter whose
painting will grace the front cover of the book and who others claim to have
been a Bahá'í?
The Scholarly Response to the First Drafts
The "Preface" of the book (which never actually materialized) symbolized for
me the difficulty of writing a book for a general, or scholarly,
vis-à-vis Bahá'í audience. I asked one of our
outstanding and most articulate early believers to write the Preface. In a
matter of a few weeks, he produced an evocative and moving story of the drama
of the early Bahá'ís. Hearing his sonorious first reading of the
Preface over the phone is something that will always stay with me. His
particular approach, I thought, would go over extremely well with a
Bahá'í audience, because it cast the story in metaphors and
figurative language familiar to Bahá'ís. I hesitatingly included
this Preface in the draft submitted to the Aid to Scholarly Publications
Programme (ASPP); it later appeared that in the first round of reviews of the
manuscript, scholars had taken exception to the Bahá'í tone of
the Preface which, they felt, also percolated throughout the whole manuscript.
I subsequently, and regretfully, removed it from the newer drafts.
Serendipity and the Physical Layout of the Book
On the matter of the Group of Seven Painters, I must relate a charming account
that eventually led to the adoption of the present book-cover, a Lawren S.
Harris painting, entitled, "Decorative Landscape, 1917." After the book had
gone through the cycle of two circles of Bahá'í readers, March
and April 1993, my wife and I visited the National Art Gallery in Ottawa on
occasion of our wedding anniversary on 24 April 1993. About half-way through
the tour, we spotted a glorious, very-Canadian, painting, and I exclaimed,
"That's the book's cover!" As you can see, the colours are vibrant. I rushed
down to the Gallery's bookstore and picked up a few postcards of the painting.
We learned that it had been in hiding for some 70 years and that it had been
brought to light only weeks earlier. The following week, I had an urgent call
from my good friend, Maureen Flynn-Burrhoe, a part-time curator and an artist,
who pointed my attention to an article by Jack Schadbolt (1983) on the life of
Lawren S. Harris, in which he claims that Harris was a Bahá'í. I
have not been able to confirm Harris' allegiance to the Bahá'í
Faith, but the story was good enough to decide, in my mind, that Harris'
painting would be, indeed, the most appropriate one for the book. Several
weeks later I wrote to Harris' son, Lawren P. Harris, asking for permission to
use the painting. He returned the original letter to me after having penned
the words, "Permission granted Re; above described reproduction request. With
my best wishes, Lawren P. Harris. June 18, 1993."
There were two other components of the physical layout of the book, namely the
photographs and the index. I realized from the start that there is no abundant
supply of photographs of early Bahá'ís in Canada. As I visited
Bahá'í archives and individuals, I photocopied the original
photographs so that if I would need them later, I could get in touch with these
sources for the originals. This does not always work. One major
Bahá'í archive on Canada's West Coast informed me that after
receiving my request for the originals, they could not find the photographs
(and when I had had visited their archives earlier, they were very well
organized, or so I had thought)--this explains the singular lack of photographs
of Western Bahá'ís in the book. As a consequence, I had to fall
back on making negatives of the photocopies that I had made during my earlier
There were other photographs which I would have loved to be included in the
book. I wanted photographs of Emeric and Rosemary Sala, but the Secretary of
the relevant Bahá'í community had moved without leaving a
forwarding address; a relative of the Salas was constantly on the road and when
it came to handing in the photographs to Wilfrid Laurier University Press, she
could not be reached in time. Dr. Rose Henderson, a prominent Canadian social
reformer and an early Bahá'í, is someone else whose photograph
could have embellished the book. My search for her photograph was futile.
For some other photographs, I cropped individuals from the larger group
More importantly, I had to come up with a particular approach to the
photographs in the book. I decided, therefore, to let the photos tell a story
on their own. This meant arranging the photos in such a way that one could
sense the Bahá'í history by just looking at the photos which
would carry carefully worded captions that would so entice the viewer that he
or she would feel obliged to read the main text itself. The set of photographs
related to the earliest moments of Bahá'ís in Canada would
highlight their forceful individualism and unique character traits; as we move
through time, these sorts of photographs would be replaced by those that
emphasize the emergence of the Bahá'í community, showing pictures
of groups and local governing bodies.
In November 1995, the John Robarts Memorial Fund provided $1000 towards the
cost of producing the photographs in the book--a most welcome gift, arranged
through the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Canada.
This meant that 38 photographs found their way into the book.
On New Findings or Insights
All these elements of my research have, I believe, changed me in some way.
But the most profound facet involved my discovery of the great Jewish
contribution to the early days of the Canadian Bahá'í community,
the oft-unstated role and importance of women in Bahá'í history,
the current difficult and lonely stage of old Bahá'ís, and the
role of religious singleness (not a demographic term) in the life of a
minority religion. I also discovered what made some communities grow, while
The Jewish contribution allowed me to understand the unique ways groups enter
the Bahá'í Faith. Jews relied on their keen sense of justice and
their literary inclinations that constitutes their contributions as
Bahá'ís; those of Catholic origin spoke fervently of the "Truth"
that made them become Bahá'ís; and the Protestants had a penchant
for individual responsibility and the so-called twelve principles. In Canada,
it was the entrance of Jews into the Bahá'í community in the
1920s that spurred the community to a more vigorous outreach to wider society,
where it became more common to find not only topics of more secular and wider
interest at Bahá'í meetings, but also the occasional
non-Bahá'í speaker at such meetings. Moreover, these Jewish
adherents were among the first to respond with enthusiasm and understanding to
Shoghi Effendi's messages about the World Order of Bahá'u'lláh.
Special mention should be made of Hand of the Cause Siegfried ("Freddie")
Schopflocher, a humble man who revitalized, through his generosity and urgent
attention and inspiration, the building of the House of Worship in Wilmette,
The role of women. Some must surely claim that I have become obsessed with
figuring out their historical participation. Why is it that men are seven
times more likely to get an article-length obituary in a Canadian
Bahá'í news organ than women, despite the fact that more than 70%
of the community across Canada were women? This realization has urged me to
ask women readers of early drafts of the manuscript to look at ways my insights
and conclusions, my tone, and my findings denoted an unwanted and unpleasant
perspective that we men sometimes seem to express.
I arrived at a critical point in my conceptualization of the role of women in
the early Canadian Bahá'í community when my perspective that,
somehow, single women must have acted as barriers to the growth of the new
religion, was replaced by the idea that their overwhelming presence in the
Bahá'í community did shape the growth of the Bahá'í
communitym but that such growth was not necessarily any worse or any better
than under any other circumnstance. The fact that many single women were
involved in technological, and sometimes managerial, positions allowed them to
travel far and wide to spread the Bahá'í Faith across Canada. By
far, the first pioneers and the first enrollees were women.
My other finding also relates to women in our community, but in our
contemporary one. I found myself often interviewing the now older women who
are living on the margins of the Bahá'í community. They lived in
geographically isolating homes and apartments in big cities, were socially not
drawn into the web of Bahá'í community life, and lived
unacknowledged of their immense and unique contributions to the early life of
the Canadian Bahá'í community.
In the waning hours of getting the book manuscript to the publisher, I found
myself using the term religious singleness to refer to a peculiar
phenomenon among minority religions in Western society: the existence of a
single individual, who unlike the other members of his or her family, is the
sole member of a minority religion. Moreover, the fewness of such believers is
a city or town heightens their religious singleness. It is this religious
singleness that is so characteristic in the establishment and maintenance of a
non-Western new religious movement in our industrial society. Religious
singleness determines the stature, the growth, size, and recognition of such a
Finally, I felt impelled to do a "study-within-a-study" of early
Bahá'í communities in Canada. With a wealth of documentary and
oral material, I was able to reconstitute some of the factors that sustained
fifteen Bahá'í communities across Canada. I developed a
"diversity index" and other measures of growth or stagnation. The communities
that grew, in short, were characterized by two things: a diversity of methods
to propagate the Bahá'í Faith, and links of association with the
wider community, and with like-minded organizations in particular. I also
found that some communities consisted primarily of artists, others of families,
and still others of exclusively women. One community had a membership of
pioneers who virtually all were second-generation Bahá'ís
(inexplicably that community died as soon as it was born).
All of these findings brought me a great deal to think about and allowed me to
think more deeply about the social characteristics that, for a moment,
determine the nature and growth of our religion in Canada. Like any new
discoveries, such ideas produce many moments of joy.
Elements of Sadness
The work for "the book" has also been a source of some sadness. I grieve
about how few Bahá'í documents have been passed on to the next
generations (no doubt, the singleness, or the childlessness of many early
believers, may have something to do with that). I was horrified on discovering
the sad state of our Bahá'í archives. I was struck by the
superficiality, the blandness, and the lack of "blood, flesh, sweat, and tears"
in many of the published Bahá'í reports. But, there was, I
believe, nothing that shook me deeper than examining `Abdu'l-Bahá's stay
in Canada, and in Montreal in particular.
When the research was completed in the summer of 1992, I set out to write one
chapter a month. I earlier had, in June 1989, configured six chapters. As I
began writing, it took about a week to produce one chapter. I soon had the
idea of writing 13 chapters. As I got nearer to the 13th chapter, I saw the
possibility of writing 17. When I reached 17, I quickly readjusted my focus to
even more chapters. I ended up with 24 chapters. The fact that the book now
has 16, simply means that several chapters have been integrated into one. The
most enduring struggle dealt with the chapters that recount
`Abdu'l-Bahá's sojourn in this country.
To prepare for the two chapters on `Abdu'l-Bahá's visit to Canada, I
had examined every possible written document and had collected a variety of
personal stories surrounding his visit. I discovered that the French-language
Press had also covered his stay in that city in 1912 but that the official
Bahá'í publications had seemed to omit them. There were many
other incongruencies, including the variable dates of his stay (there were, I
recall, eight different dates indicated in the Bahá'í
publications for his visit). When I visited Montreal several times to retrace
`Abdu'l-Bahá's footsteps (ever keeping in mind the kind of weather that
attended his stay in Montreal--it was cold and drizzly), I was saddened to see
many of the sites associated with his visit were either burned down, had
deteriorated, or had altogether disappeared. The many contradictions of
information about his visit, the deplorable state of most of the places he
visited, and the realization that of the 2,400 people who had seen and heard
him, only four had stepped forward to become Bahá'ís--all of
these things made the process of writing "his" two chapters painfully difficult
and very time consuming.
Some Challenges Unique to Doing Research among Bahá'ís
Before undertaking the writing of the manuscript, I have found another
time-consuming, but necessary task. By the time I started doing my interviews
in the summer of 1990, I already had compiled a draft list of all people who
were considered Bahá'ís between 1898 and 1948. I used the
interviews not only to secure the details of the lives of the research
participants themselves but also to have an opportunity to go over my initial
list (which has now grown to ca. 555 names). I would start every interview by
going over this list, name by name, inviting my interviewees to add their
knowledge about a particular individual's religious background, place and date
of "declaration," who was the Bahá'í teacher?, how many children?
which ones became Bahá'ís?, how many times and where did the
person move to? maiden name? occupation? ethnic or national background? etc.
It was only after I had conducted some 40 of these interviews that I realized
how, by accident, I was able to derive otherwise inaccessible information. It
was my general experience that when I proceeded to ask the individuals about
what they felt were their contribution to the Bahá'í community,
or some other facet of their lives that made a difference in someone else's,
the interviewed Bahá'ís tended to be most modest in their
replies. It was only after going over the list of 555 names that someone
else would account another person's accomplishments or challenges. In that
sense, Bahá'ís were not always entirely forthcoming about their
own lives, but much rather spoke of someone else's.
The issues of bona fide challenges within the Bahá'í
community (Bahá'ís call them "tests") were extremely difficult to
ask about; any attempt to explain or even think about such community "tests"
was considered either too painful, plainly forgotten, or regarded as a form of
backbiting. As a consequence, many of the images presented seem to be either
bland or rosy.
On a more scholarly level, but nevertheless still personal, I began to
acknowledge the social intricacy of doing research, and Bahá'í
research in particular.
Intellectual and Spiritual Obligations
I would like to describe the intellectual and spiritual obligations
surrounding the book, as the "heart" of all my research and writing--I cannot
conveniently separate these two main obligations.
I have constructed a particular narrative of our Canadian Bahá'í
history. It is my interpretation of events, of documents, and what
people have genuinely shared with me. I have placed two "bookends" around this
narrative. Both the introductory and concluding chapters are typically
The "Gulliver" tale is about the scholarly review, by my peers and scholars.
It begins by looking at the task of researching an hitherto undisclosed area.
While it is easy to trace formally the beginning of my research adventure
(namely an old letter in an archive), it is altogether much more difficult to
pinpoint a time when the research is completed. The research is certainly not
finished when one embarks upon the writing up of one's findings, because the
analysis is on-going during this latter stage, forcing the author to return to
the data or even embark on a new sidepath of research. The research stages may
well be defined by a research proposal, but here, too, one must expect new
turns in the plot. Can we consider the research finished when the first groups
of readers--I had selected two circles of readers, composed of women and men,
young and old, married and otherwise to read the first draft? What about the
continuing stream of letters, documents, photographs that many were so kind
enough to send me? These ensured that the research could not yet finish. What
about the critical suggestions from a group of Canada's scholars who provided
the means to have the research take new turns and twists?
I was desperate. I knew that I had to submit the book manuscript to the
National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Canada for their
review and consideration. At what point could I say, "This is it!" If the
manuscript went prematurely to that body, would it be inappropriate to
incorporate new elements into the book, to be brought on by further scholarly
reviewers, by my publisher, and even by the marketing manager of the publishing
house? All of these elements made me feel like Gulliver, with strings holding
him down, tightening their grip as he struggled to move.
My task is over, the research is laid out, my findings haunted by uncertainty,
but now beyond my control, and, I ask myself, will my more secure findings
whether the inevitable questions that will come the book's way? Will my 600
footnotes, my 25-page list of published and unpublished materials, my citing
from over 50 interviews, my odd collection of photographs protect me, protect
This brings me to the final point of my personal reflections about the process
of Bahá'í research: for whom did I write the book?
If it were finding only one audience, I could have found the right "tone" in
writing the book. I recall starting my very first chapter in September 1992
with a reply to what I had thought was a simple question, "For whom would I be
writing?: for Bahá'ís or social scientists?" I vividly remember
staring at my keyboard and deciding that I would write for myself because I am
a Bahá'í and a sociologist. My writing would have to satisfy me
as I "represented" both audiences. And while this approach still generally
holds true for the book today, my subsequent drafts of the manuscript would
eventually show that the book had six kinds of audiences.
First, the individual Bahá'í. My sole purpose in
submitting the first draft of the book to two circles of "ordinary"
Bahá'í readers was to elicit their reactions and encourage them
to submit ideas of what should or should not be included. I was delightfully
surprised to see that all submitted written comments, which I then extracted
and shared with all other members of the groups. We met over a working dinner
where for many hours we discussed everything under the sun, including the title
of the book. I cannot describe the impetus and the encouragement that this
unique consultative process engendered. The attentiveness of these
Bahá'ís, drawn from everyday life, made me believe I had a
manuscript worth researching and writing. The writing style had to appeal to
both the formally educated and "not-so-educated" element of the
Bahá'í community. These categories are, I realize, artificial,
but they forced me to put the manuscript into a narrative style, with details
packed into the footnotes for those who wanted to explore the issues and
sources more deeply.
Bahá'ís may well ask themselves the reasons why I, as a
Bahá'í author, avoided capitalization of pronoun references to
Bahá'u'lláh, the Báb, and `Abdu'l-Bahá. The reader
should be made aware of the Bahá'í usage of capitalization when
referring to the founders of religions, including the two founders of the
Bahá'í Faith, namely the Báb and
Bahá'u'lláh. Bahá'ís see no objection to others'
not using capitalization, but may find it peculiar to see a
Bahá'í scholar not using it. There are, after all, other
researchers who echo the approach of respecting the research participants and
their world views. They either wish to break down the power difference between
the "researched" and the "researcher" (see, for example, Shulamit Reinharz,
1992: 180-86), or to avoid giving offense to the group under study--a principle
which, after all, is entrenched in the sort of research policies advocated by
the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. The practice of
capitalization to referring to the founders of religions is, after all, not
uncommon in other scholarly works such as the The New Catholic
Encyclopedia. Yet, the Bahá'í community permits references
to the founders of their religion to be non-capitalized when the intended
audiences are not members of their religion. I have adopted this practice in
The Origins of the Bahá'í Community of Canada.
At the invitation of Suzanne and Julian Lebensold in Baie d'Urfé (west
of Montreal), my family devoted a long weekend, in April 1993, to discussing a
title for the book. Before this consultation, I had adopted Pearls in the
Sand as a working title, until someone said that the title suggested the
book was about the tar sands of Alberta! During that weekend at the
Lebensolds, we combed through the Bahá'í writings and were
particularly attracted to the Tablets of the Divine Plan and the letters to Canadian
Bahá'ís from Shoghi Effendi, Guardian of the Bahá'í
Faith. No doubt, all possible titles were evocative, but also, from the
perspective of a non-Bahá'í audience, quite obscure. For
example, Children of the Half Light was a possibility, but there was
nothing in the title that said that this was a scholarly study of the
Bahá'í Faith. My ten-year old son, Jordan, suggested, Canada:
A Tough Nut to Crack, given the slow growth of the Bahá'í
Faith in this country. That title was very popular for at least an hour.
Second, I had to bear in mind the role of Bahá'í agencies
and, most notably, the National Spiritual Assenmbly of the
Bahá'ís of Canada. Given the embryonic nature of the
Bahá'í community and attacks upon it by various groups in certain
parts of the globe, it would be important to be as faithful as one can to
giving an accurate rendering of the Bahá'í teachings, without
engaging in apologetics or hagiography. Of the six audiences, this was perhaps
one of the two most crucial. According to Bahá'í review process,
the force of the National Spiritual Assembly's review dealt only to obvious
factual inaccuracies, by omission or commission. These critiques were
thorough, nevertheless, and only once did I feel obliged to make a minor,
substantive change that involved an extract from an interview. This change
really dealt more with providing the reader with the larger, social context of
particular statements. All in all, I do not feel that these reviews and
critiques offered suggestions that took away from the scholarly thrust of the
Third. Research-granting agencies were, in many respects, another
audience. Research-grant proposals express assertations, claims, plans, and
hopes that the researcher must feel obligated to follow. A good researcher is
also sensitive to the emergence of new data and insights not originally
considered in the proposal. The original application secured me a grant of ca.
$9,300, which was sufficient for my purposes. The consequence of receiving public money meant that I
could not write a book intended for Bahá'í audiences only (which
had not been my intention anyway) and that the Bahá'í history had
to be cast in terms and terminology which should be understood by the wider
society. Many readers will, I am sure, know where in the manuscript I seemed
to have strayed in the land of the Bahá'ís, of the other social
scientists, or the wider society. I believe that while there is no easy
resolution to such a dilemma--for such "mixed" writing--the resolution in any
case can only be found by writing up the research.
This brings me to my fourth audience: the Bahá'ís who are
scholars. In usual Bahá'í parlance, "Bahá'í
scholarship," on the one hand, designates the kind of work envisioned by
the Universal House of Justice for Bahá'ís, whether formally
educated or not, in all walks of life, in their attempts to apply their
knowledge of the Bahá'í teachings to the problems of society.
"Bahá'í Studies," on the other hand, refers to the kind of
work, for example, that my book entails: the study of a Bahá'í
subject without immediate application to solving problems. I should preface my
remarks by emphasizing that my following assessment of Bahá'í
Studies stems from my own personal experience and may therefore unfairly
reflect on Bahá'í Studies in general. What strikes me about
studies undertaken by Bahá'ís is that it is hierarchical, male
oriented, and quite diverse. It had never occurred to me that
Bahá'í scholars represent a hierarchical structure that greatly
determines the resources, the exposure, and the publication outlets of one's
work. There appears to be a great divide between those who speak Persian and
those who do not: some claim that unless one speaks Persian (and Arabic), no
true Bahá'í studies can be undertaken. We also seem to make
significant distinctions between those who are concerned about Middle-East
history and the "rest." Another dividing line seems to separate the
theological/apologetical approaches taken largely by European scholars as a
sort of theological approach, as opposed to the more empirical work here in
What about the masculinity of Bahá'í studies? To be a scholar
who perceives himself to be on the margins (working at a second-tier
university, a sociologist, living in Atlantic Canada, working with
non-Middle-East topics, a heavy reliance an empirical fieldwork, etc.) may give
me a certain vantage point denied to others who are in the center of such
studies. I have already alluded to the hierarchical framework of studies
undertaken by Bahá'ís. Nineteenth-century mechanistic views
predominate, where belief in objectivity is sacrosanct. It excludes research
methodologies that advocate qualitative approaches and tends not to appreciate
the scholarly contributions made by women scholars, particularly those who are
perceived as "feminist." It is this "masculinist" approach that bothers those
men who wish to "own the equality of women and men." The masculinist approach
also entails a degree of secrecy in one's work--a replication of the old world
order--while from the perspective of several scholars the spirit of cooperation
and openess should be the norm.
Bahá'í Studies, for its size, is very diverse. One finds a
refreshing diversity of perspectives, some grounded in the old scholarly
traditions, but also those that are clearly scientistic, feminist,
postmodernist, the "new" ethnographic, the narrative, "qualitative," and the
deconstructionist, in addition to the descriptive biographies and "straight"
history. I might also add another variant of scholarship undertaken by
Bahá'ís: the applied vs. the academic. But because there are
still relatively few scholars, all the tensions and problems associated with
academic studies are greatly magnified among Bahá'í scholars. In
addition to the tensions normally associated with a hierarchical, masculinist
approach to scholarship,
These dimensions of Bahá'í Studies provide the larger context
under which I researched and wrote the volume: they informed my steps along
every which way and, like this particular presentation of my personal
reflections, I imagine myself trying to defend and articulate my approach in
this or that circle of Bahá'í academics.
Fifth. My scholarly peers, who are not Bahá'ís,
constituted an important audience intended by the book for several reasons. I
had wanted the book to build links of Bahá'í Studies with the
larger, academic world, acquainting them with the nature and purpose of the
Bahá'í community. I was also hoping that my sociological
research on the Bahá'í community would reveal something of
scholarly value to a broad segment of scholars involved with the study of
religion and of social movements. The adoption of the book as a class textbook
would be a bonus, of course, but I would be relying on reviews in scholarly
journals for the wider dissemination of my findings. I should mention that on
more than one occasion, before or while I undertook the research, a number of
scholars had encouraged me to go forward with the study and that they saw
nothing incongruent with the fact of a Bahá'í studying his or her
own (national) Bahá'í community. Nevertheless, they did express
a few reservations.
The early reception indicated to me that scholars in religious studies are
very much bounded by empiricism, by their conservative outlook that lagged more
than twenty years behind the frontlines of the new scholarship, and by their
persistent refusal to see the extent to which their own "objective" views were
deeply shaped by a Christian outlook. It is a group that wears their rows with
religious authorities as proud badges. Qualitative research seems out of reach
of some; needless to say, there are only a few women scholars in this field.
On numerous occasions, I had to inform them that a phrase such as, "this is a
study of the Bahá'í" is peculiar to us. It's equivalent
to saying "this is a study of the Christian." It seems that designating
a religion by a term not chosen by its followers signifies a misplaced
objectivity, a snub, a declaration of the said religion's illegitimacy.
One of my colleagues in Atlantic Canada over the ten years of the project
simply refused even the appelation "Bahá'í." That colleague
phrased queries in the manner of, "How's the book coming along?" When
that colleague learned that I had received a publication subvention from the
Aid to Scholarly Publications Programme, that same colleague, for the first
time, used the word "Bahá'í."
There were other criticisms. They
believed I set up an unnatural polarity between the sociology of religion and
my writing as a committed believer. They advocated my coverting the chapters
into a conceptual framework, organizing them around concepts or themes, rather
than strictly chronological sequence. I would resolve the chronology/thematic
debate by roughly retaining the chapters in the same order (although a few will
be moved around), but emphasizing certain themes for the relevant period.
After all, certain themes are time-dependent (e.g. boundary maintenance becomes
more critical as a community achieves a particular stage of growth or
consciousness of itself). Along the same lines, they found that I should
lessen my emphasis on details of personalities. The use of surnames, rather
than just first names of the early Bahá'ís, would also heighten
the relevance of the manuscript as a sociological or scholarly document. The
scholars also took issue with my criticism of their term cults which
they ordinarily use to refer to new religious movements. I still find their
use of that term deplorable and, as a consequence, I packed that whole
discussion away in an endnote. Finally, they encouraged me to draw more on the
sociological literature that would shed light on the development of the
Canadian Bahá'í community.
Their criticisms continued: One Reader took issue with my observation that
the spread of the Canadian Bahá'í community did not conform to
what sociologists of religion have been saying about the prevalence of cults
across Canada's geography. The ms and my discussion of various
Bahá'í communities go only up to 1948. The Reader may have been
quite right that the contemporary Bahá'í community in Canada
follows the general sociological observation about sects and cults in Canada,
but there is very little evidence that supports that fact before 1948. (The
general sociological finding about new religious movements and cults in Canada
is that they tend to proliferate more in Western parts of the country, where
atheism and weakened religious conservativism prevails.)
The Reader, moreover, took exception to my statement that I spoke about the
"recruitment of ordinary Canadians." Again, my book goes only up to
1948; the Reader cited the 1991 census as evidence that Bahá'ís
are one of the best educated groups in Canada. (This might be true, although
this type of census information is based on a 20% sample, excludes Indian
reserves (where 1/4 of Canadian Bahá'ís reside); and due to the
relatively small size of the Bahá'í population, a sample can
easily skew the findings).
The two Readers also disagreed among themselves. The first Reader noted that
I have done research outside my field and ventured into history, weakening the
manuscript. The other Reader claimed, however, that my historical research
methods were "sound."
Finally, the first Reader critiqued the fact that I had circulated the book ms
to two circles of Bahá'í readers. With the increased importance
of maintaining ethics in their research, researchers are increasingly sharing
their findings and questions with their research "subjects." In my view, such
a process often yields important new data and insights, discussions of which
can be taken down in either footnote form or in the main text itself.
Along another dimension, I believe it is important to be as sensitive as
possible to the question of gender in one's research. Hence, I have made sure
that the circles of readers included both women and men. I have found it most
helpful to receive the views of readers who are women, spotting this or that
particular blind spot or bias on my part. Margrit Eichler's book on non-sexist
research (1988) has, in particular, moved me to consider carefully such bias in
research: circulating the ms was simply one way of fulfilling this particular
The sixth audience were the potential publishers themselves. At the
very beginning of the research I had decided to go with an academic publisher
outside the Bahá'í community. I wanted to make bridges and reach
out. Through a colleague's recommendation, I contacted Wilfrid Laurier
University Press. Their range of titles included those related to religious
history. Its former director was singularly interested in the project and even
suggested that I should send the manuscript for review to the National
Spiritual Assembly of Canada. He thought that the story will be "fascinating,
and certainly one that must be told." He also thought that it "would be
important for Canadians to learn of the types of prejudices, etc., the
Bahá'ís were exposed to" (Fizet, 1989). However, he also made it
clear that the Press was "only interested in manuscripts that satisfy a peer
review process without our having to aid in the development of the manuscript."
His successor, Ms. Sandra Woolfrey, was unflagging in her support of seeing
the manuscript through to completion and through the peer-review process. By
August 1993, I was ready to send the first formal draft to the WLUP and to
ASPP. By the time she had provided many practical tips of how to prepare a
manuscript for consideration by ASPP and how to deal with the criticisms of
their Readers, I had already decided that I was morally bound to stay with
The narrative of my book was strongly determined by the principal concerns of
academic publishers in Canada. Scholarly books in Canada require subsidies. A
sale of more than 600 copies is a runaway bestseller, and the tone of such books must be cast in a manner that
the general educated public can understand: it cannot be simply a believer's
account of his or her own religion. The language must be more or less neutral.
Whatever shortcomings Bahá'ís might read into such an approach,
there would be other gains. Younger Bahá'í scholars, who include
a larger proportion of women than was previously the case, are now in a much
better position than even my generation, let alone the generation before me of
scholars to contribute both to Bahá'í Studies and their
respective disciplines. Metaphorically speaking, I see the generation
preceeding mine pointing in the direction of the top of a jungled mountain and
saying, "Look, that's where we'll be someday!" Speaking for myself, I saw my
duty as to make a start in cutting a path through this jungle, or perhaps just
the beginning of such a path, to enable the next cohort of Bahá'í
scholars to advance towards the top. From my perspective, here and now in
Canada and in this phase of Bahá'í communities, I felt the need
to establish the legitimacy of Bahá'í Studies by (1) securing
research grants from non-Bahá'í sources for the purpose of doing
Bahá'í research, and that such grants should be forthcoming from
academic bodies and councils; (2) finding new empiricial ways, with new
methodologies, to look at our struggling Bahá'í communities; (3)
establishing a Bahá'í "voice" that was neither hagiographic nor
too secular (knowing full well that criticisms might ensue from both scholars
and Bahá'ís); and (4) making Bahá'í Studies more
relevant to the wider society; this involved the use of
non-Bahá'í means of distribution and more complete involvement
with the concerns of surrounding scholars.
When WLUP accepted the manuscript for publication on 26 September 1995 it made
it on the condition that it "focus on its historical and narrative strengths
and ... remove the language of the pietistic believer that undermines the
scholarship and downplay the sociological analysis which is often stretched for
such a small sample." You will note that the scholars wanted more of a
sociological analysis; the publisher wanted more of a narrative--my original
manuscript! These new twists and turns in scholarly publishing provide of the
shifting sands that made it sometimes difficult to assess where one stands.
For all the years of researching and writing this manuscript, there has not
been a week without a headache, or worries as to what will come from the work.
For about a year after the manuscript was completed, I felt I had to
spiritually recuperate from that task.
A substantial change occurred in the way I initially had to substantiate,
perhaps apologize, for my being a Bahá'í and doing academic
research on my religion. Happily, this is no longer the case. Sometime
between 1989 and 1994, the publisher decided that I should be less apologetic
about my being a Bahá'í writing about his own religious
community. This change occurred at the same time as other Bahá'í
academic have become less apologetic about their being Bahá'ís
and more critical about non-Bahá'í academic work of their
religion (see, e.g., Quinn, 1996).
In going over my correspondence with my publisher, I am appalled by how naive
one can be in figuring out a time frame for publishing a book. As Ms. Woolfrey
of WLUP indicated, "it takes a perfectly long time to make a perfect book"
(Woolfrey. 1995). In a letter from WLUP (4th of June 1992), it seems that the
timeline has already been established at 18 months after receipt of the final
copy, which would place the publication date at October 1997. However, my
first hint of a hoped-for publication date was July 1995; the book was
published on 2 December 1996.
The Basis of Future Work Related to the Book
The book appears in time for the 100th anniversary of the introduction of the
Bahá'í Faith to Canada in September, 1898. This serendipity
seems to be ushering in a fresh wave of research and academic interest in the
Already, young Bahá'í men and women at the University of Alberta
(Andrew Pemberton-Pigott), Mount Allison University (Kathleen Bray), and the
University of Manitoba have found the means to pursue Bahá'í
historical research related to their immediate environment. During the
research and writing of The Origins, there has been a new Ph.D.
dissertation on Canadian (and Indian) Bahá'ís accepted in Canada
(Drewek, 1996); another one is underway (Echevarria-Howe, 1996) which was also
funded as a doctoral fellowship by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research
Council of Canada.
Interest was already expressed by a Bahá'í-run film company in
Canada to undertake the filming of Bahá'í history, relying to a
great extent on The Origins of the Bahá'í Community of Canada,
1898-1948. Although the company was not able to secure the necessary
external grant for this purpose, Bahá'ís are now more ready with
bolder plans and ideas that could excite both Bahá'ís and others
alike. Productions on "Vision TV" might also feature early historical
accounts. I also see more possibilities in the area of children's literature,
where an enterprising author might be able to develop stories around the early
Bahá'ís in Canada. There is also, I believe, no question about
the possibility and the need to develop a travelling
Bahá'í-history exhibit, in time for the 100th anniversary in
Canada. In this connection, I should mention the hope of publishing a book in
the style of a family photo-album, making it a collection of photographs, at
which point I can probably use that excellent Preface by Dr. Ross Woodman I
referred to earlier.
I believe that Bahá'ís, as well as many others, will be inspired
by the single mindedness of our early spiritual ancestors, the dawning of the
vision of the unity of humankind, and their ability to translate that belief
into action. Our admiration increases when we realize that the conditions
under which the Bahá'í Faith came to Canada seemed chaotic at
times, frustrating, and slow, characterized by setbacks, but most of all by a
legacy which will transmute the grains of sand into pearls.
Drewek, Paula. 1996. "Cross-cultural Testing of Fowler's Model of Faith
among Bahá'ís: India and Canada" Ph.D. Dissertation. Ottawa,
Ontario. Department of Religious Studies, University of Ottawa. May.
Echevarria-Howe, Lynn. 1996. "Canadian Bahá'í Women and Social
Developing a Bahá'í Perspective." Ph.D. research funded by
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Essex, England.
Department of Sociology, University of Essex. (In progress)
Eichler, Margrit. 1988. Non-Sexist Research Methods: A Practical Guide.
Fizet, William. 1989. Letter from William Fizet, Director of Wilfrid Laurier
Press, Waterloo, Ont., to Will C. van den Hoonaard, 19 June.
Quinn, Wendy. 1996. "The Subject Replies: A Response to the Study on American
Discourse and Social Networks." A paper presented at the 13th Qualitative
Analysis Conference, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. 31 May.
Reinharz, Shulamit. 1992. Feminist Methods in Social Research. New York:
Shadbolt, Jack. 1983. "A Personal Recollection." Pp. 34-41 in Vancouver: Art
and Artists, 1931-1983, edited by Vancouver Art Gallery. Vancouver: Vancouver Art
Woolfrey, Sandra. 1993. Letter from Sandra Woolfrey, Director of Wilfrid
Press, Waterloo, Ont., to Will C. van den Hoonaard, 12 March.
____. 1995. Letter from Sandra Woolfrey, Director of Wilfrid Laurier
Press, Waterloo, Ont., to Will C. van den Hoonaard, 9 February.
 Wilfrid Laurier University Press,
 Here are some statistical data on the project to
research the early history of the Bahá'í Faith in Canada:
- assembled more than 10,000 pages of documents and notes;
- it took six years to do the research, or just over 2,180 fatiguing days
(Aug. 1986-Aug. 1992);
- and another 777 days of rewriting seven drafts later (March 1993-March
- developed a membership list of 555 early Canadian Bahá'ís,
based on at least 100 sources of information;
- six months, or 186 days, went into writing the first draft of the book
(Sept. 1992-end of Febr. 1993);
- interviewed some 40 people and read interviews of another 23; engaged in
correspondence with at least 50 people, including scholars and offices of
- consulted 29 archival collections in Canada and the United States and 8
Bahá'í membership lists;
- studied 23 official reports;
- read 19, mostly unpublished, memoirs; and
- the research and writing cost $27,000 to undertake.
This is a collection of 14 letters written during World
War I by `Abdu'l-Bahá to Bahá'ís in North America,
outlining their global tasks of spreading the Bahá'í Faith around
 I might add that in connection with asking for
publication and microfilming funds from a Bahá'í funding agency
located in Switzerland, I had never received a reply even to this day.
 The reader can find a more detailed treatment of this topic in my article, "The Social Organization of Bahá'í mentorship
and scholarship" (forthcoming).
 I have answered these criticisms in my response of 30 May 1994, addressed to the Aid to Scholarly Publications Programme.
 It was personally encouraging for me to receive one of
Ms. Woolfrey's many letters (Woolfrey, 1994), in which she noted that I had
paid attention to gender equity in another manuscript I reviewed for her. She
says, "In a year when the backlash has been feeling a lot more like a whiplash
it is wonderful to discover a man who truly concerns himself with issues of
human dignity and human decency."
 I was forewarned that the Aid to Scholarly Publications
Programme had become "increasingly competitive" and that it was important that
the manuscript "be as strong as possible" (Woolfrey, 1993).
 Even Alias Grace, the most recent book by one of
Canada's most successful authors, Margaret Atwood, will not likely exceed 7,000
copies in sales (Globe and Mail, 24 September 1996: A22).