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Abstract:
Brief history about the first international Baha'i congress, including recollections of some participants.

"This Glorious Harvest of Victory":
The 1963 World Congress

by Adam Thorne

2012-11
The World Congress was a double celebration – the "Most Great Jubilee", commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the declaration of the mission of Bahá’u’lláh in Baghdad in April 1863 and the victorious completion of Shoghi Effendi’s Ten Year Crusade. These were days of great happiness and rejoicing for the many friends who had been separated because they were pioneering and who met in happy reunion with a growing awareness that before them was spread a gathering that, for the first time, was a glimpse of the future for the human race.

What a sight greeted the Bahá’ís as they flocked to the Albert Hall! As Iain McDonald recalls: "There were occasions when the London police became irritated by chatty Bahá’ís stopping in the middle of the pedestrian crossing (running between the Albert Hall and Hyde Park) and cheerfully holding up the London traffic."[1] When the friends greeted each other with "Alláh’u’Abhá!", a policeman who was listening to them repeated the greeting and was hugged enthusiastically.

There are four key moments in the programme that stand out to those who attended the Congress; the announcement of the members of the Universal House of Justice, Rúhíyyih Khánum speaking about Shoghi Effendi, the stories of the pioneers and the session that focused on the imprisonment of Moroccan Bahais.

During the Ridván period just before the Congress delegates from nearly all the 56 National Assemblies gathered in Haifa to elect the Universal House of Justice. Hand of the Cause Paul Haney presented "those distant nine figures, heads bowed, stock still, as thousands and thousands of encircling Bahá’ís stood and applauded them".[2] Here was an institution that "is to be the exponent and guardian of the Divine Justice which can alone insure the security of, and establish the reign of law and order in, a strangely disordered world".[3] Yet, as John Wade noted: "I remember very distinctly that I was deeply impressed by the fact that they had no badges, nothing to distinguish them but were all dressed in ordinary suits and I thought then 'Well, if this is the Faith, then this is really it'."[4]

The friends were thrilled to see that two British Bahá'ís – David Hofman and Ian Semple – had been elected to this august institution. Mr Hofman then read the first statement from the Universal House of Justice. In it they paid a humble tribute to "the reality of the sacrifice, the labour, the self-discipline, the superb stewardship of the Hands of the Cause of God" who had "kept the ship on its course and brought it safe to port".[5]

Later in the programme, Rúhíyyih Khánum spoke movingly of Shoghi Effendi, of how carefully he selected the furnishings for the Archives building in Haifa when they were in London. At one point, when she was so moved she couldn’t go on, the African Bahá’ís began to sing "Alláh’u’Abhá", then six thousand Bahais sang the refrain as she composed herself. Soon, she was her strong vibrant self and was able to continue.

Fred Murray, an 87-year-old Australian aborigine described being carried from Australia across the ocean "in a great new flying kangaroo"[6] and being set down in a multi-coloured garden of humanity. Mass conversion had now started in thirty countries and indigenous teachers spoke of walking up to sixty miles a day to reach distant villages.

In another poignant moment, Mrs Tahhan, wife of one of three Bahá'ís imprisoned under sentence of death in Morocco chanted a prayer and then her little son was lifted up to the microphone and he chanted short prayer in Arabic.

An enterprise such as this required an army of volunteers to man their posts. Jan Mughrabi worked at Rutland Gate for two weeks prior to the Congress. This included serving refreshments to the Hands of the Cause and to the members of the Universal House of Justice, as both institutions met at Rutland Gate to prepare a draft of the new teaching plan. There were translators to be allocated, security guards, children’s volunteers, ushers, bookstall helpers; all played their part in the running of the Congress. For weeks before the Congress Margaret Appa’s mother collected flower petals from the Guardian’s resting place, dried them in the Aga cooker and filled small brown envelopes that could be given to the visitors to the resting place.[7]

Needless to say, publicity attending the Congress was extensive. Articles appeared in at least 22 different local papers, and they appeared each day of the Congress in the London papers. Leicester raised its voice against the persecution of the Moroccan prisoners, and Cardiff celebrated the visit of boxer Joe Louis’s sister, who was a Bahá’í. Speakers spread out to give talks at Bahá'í centres before and after the Congress. Bahá'í marriages in Burnley and London received extensive coverage. Lois Hainsworth and Sylvia Schulman gave a concert recital to an appreciative audience at the Wigmore Hall just after the Congress concluded. The London Evening News published a special two-page spread full of photographs of the event.

Brigitte Beales summed up her impressions of the Congress: "There was such a feeling of happiness that we had achieved the goals of Shoghi Effendi’s Ten Year Plan, and many people had been working tirelessly and making great sacrifices to achieve this, even in the last days leading up to Ridván. For the first time one could see the world-wide nature of the Faith."[8] The friends left London "riding the crest of a great wave of victory" with the Faith "firmly rooted in the world",[9] eagerly awaiting their next goals to be set by the Universal House of Justice.

Notes

  1. Iain McDonald, email to the author, 24 December 2011.
  2. ibid.
  3. Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice (Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 3rd ed. 1969), p. 18.
  4. Interviewed by Margaret Wade for the Bahá'í Histories Project.
  5. First statement of the Universal House of Justice, 30 April, in The Bahá'í World, vol. XIV, 1963-1968 (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1974), p. 431.
  6. ibid. p. 71.
  7. Margaret Appa, email to the author, 31 October 2011.
  8. Brigitte Beales, email to the author, 24 September 2012.
  9. The Universal House of Justice, Message to National Conventions, 7 May 1963, in Wellspring of Guidance (Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1969), p. 8.
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