The Gardeners of God: An Encounter with Five Million Bahá'ís
Authors: Colette Gouvion and Philippe Jouvion [sic: different spellings]
Publisher: Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications, 1993
Translated from the French by: Judith Logsdon-Dubois
Original title: Les Jardiniers de Dieu
Original publisher: Berg International, 1989
Review by: Marc Foxhall
In the history of Bahá'í literature, The Gardeners of God: An Encounter
with Five Million Bahá'ís is ground-breaking for a very simple reason: it is
the first time journalists who are not Bahá'ís have undertaken to write a
book-length profile of the Bahá'í Faith and its worldwide community.
Intrigued by what they viewed as the Bahá'í Faith's "unique position in
religious history and the modern world," Colette Gouvion and Philippe
Jouvion set out with the dual purpose of uncovering Bahá'í history and
answering some key questions about the 150-year-old religion.
These questions included: "How does one become a Bahá'í?" How has the
Bahá'í Faith grown "during the past twenty-five years, without publicity,
without any spectacular press campaigns" from 500,000 to 5,000,000
believers? And "how does being a Bahá'í affect one's daily life?"
To find answers, the authors journeyed from France to the Bahá'í World
Centre in Haifa, Israel, where they visited various offices and private
homes, and interviewed numerous members of the Faith. The results are of
interest to anyone concerned with how individuals lives are being
transformed by this most modern of religious movements.
For while the history is well researched and delivered in a readable
style, the true heart of Gardeners of God lies in the personal profiles of
the Bahá'ís encountered by the two authors, who, with a self-effacing
style that seems uncommon among journalists today, relegate their own
judgement to a few sparse phrases and instead allow the reader to access
the Bahá'í experience through the eyes of the Faith's followers.
"I couldn't understand why there were so many religions when there was
only one God," said Benoit Huchet, a 25-year-old gardener at the World
Centre, on why he became a Bahá'í. "I lived in Buddhist temples, in Hindu
temples, in mosques, and the feeling I had that there is only one God,
that men are all praying to the same God, grew stronger."
"In France I happened to see a book with a title that intrigued me, One
People, One Planet, by Andre Brugiroux," he continued. "I bought it and
discovered the Bahá'í Faith, with its doctrine of a progressive revelation
by prophets who are God's messengers, the hope of one religion for a
united human race. I had found what I was seeking."
The authors of Gardeners of God, Mrs. Gouvion and Mr. Jouvion, a mother
and son team, are both experienced journalists and researchers. Mrs.
Gouvion worked for thirteen years on the French weekly L'Express, and for
fifteen years was editor-in-chief of the magazine Marie- Claire. She is
the author of several books including Les Enfants Problemes, La Symbolique
des Rues et les Cites, and Le Voix des Nouveaux Paysans, and is currently
editor of the travel magazine, Partance. Mr. Jouvion is a professional
researcher, freelance reporter and film producer who worked for several
years with the Cite des Sciences de la Villette in Paris. He has produced
a number of award winning documentary films.
Originally published in French in 1989, Gardeners of God has been
translated and this year was published in English by Oneworld Publications
Ltd., of Oxford, U.K. The book opens with a straightforward narrative of
the authors' initial contacts at the World Centre and then delves into the
150 year history of the Bahá'í Faith, beginning with its turbulent birth
The third and fourth chapters are devoted entirely to interviews with
individual Bahá'ís, who discuss their personal process of discovery and
adjustment to a lifestyle wherein Bahá'í principles are applied to daily
Gaston Mattheus, who is responsible for restorations at the Bahá'í World
Centre said he left the Catholic faith of his youth because of unhappiness
with the "back-room politics." The Bahá'í Faith provided answers, he said,
but he still found it difficult to accept all of its teachings.
"Some of the things they taught were difficult for me to accept," Mr.
Mattheus said. "For example, the love of all mankind; I had suffered under
the Nazis, and I hated Germans. Going to a Bahá'í conference in Germany
was a test for me. Getting over my prejudice was a big step and it took me
For others, however, the process of becoming a Bahá'í was easier. The
authors asked Pierre Spierckel, a French bookbinder, if it was difficult
to accept Bahá'í teachings. "Frankly, no, it wasn't," he replied. "The
laws that God gives us are made to help us progress and be happy, like the
rules a mother gives her child."
"The most difficult ones to obey are not the ones you would think," he
said. "I can assure you that it is very difficult never to backbite...and
yet Bahá'u'lláh defined it as one of mankind's greatest evils and said
that we must utterly avoid it."
The authors also asked how the Faith affected the work, the social life,
and the family relationships of interviewees. The answers make clear that
the effects have been profound - - although not always visible from the
"In our professional work there are situations that are the same whether
we are Bahá'ís or not," said a university professor and doctor who
practices at a hospital in France. "On the other hand," the doctor said,
"being a Bahá'í can help illumine our thinking on youth and old age,
suffering, life, death, even things like in-vitro fertilization and
In addition to interviewing Bahá'ís, the authors also make a survey of
what "some of the most gifted minds of the last part of the nineteenth
century and our modern age" have said about the Bahá'í Faith.
They note that Edward Granville Browne, a nineteenth century orientalist
scholar from England, spent much of his life studying the Bahá'í Faith and
that Ivan Turgenev, Izabella Grinevskaya, Sarah Bernhardt, Khalil Gibran
and Leo Tolstoy were all familiar with the nascent religion. Tolstoy, for
example, wrote late in life that he "sympathized" with the Faith, which
"preaches brotherhood and equality between all men, and the sacrifice of
material life in the service of God."
The book also covers in some detail the basic teachings of the Faith, as
well as episodes from its contemporary history, such as the persecution of
the Bahá'ís in Iran.
In the end, the authors say very little about what they themselves
concluded. Instead, they state that they found their encounter with the
Bahá'í Faith "challenging and rewarding," and that as they came to know
individual Bahá'ís, "we were sometimes charmed and sometimes irritated,
sometimes convinced and sometimes skeptical."
"Some may not agree with the answers" offered by the Bahá'ís, they
concluded, "yet they cannot be rejected without thought or discussion. In
this the Bahá'í Faith appeared to us to possess a contemporary spiritual