Abstract: This study concerns the transplantation of non-Western faiths
into Western settings, taking as a case study the origins and early life of the
Bahá'í community in Canada. The article first indicates the
historical origins of the Bahá'í Faith as a religious tradition
and then gives a short history of the Canadian Bahá'í community.
However, since the author's objective is sociological rather than historical,
the substance of this study is an examination of various factors that affected
the ability of the Bahá'í Faith to be transplanted into Canadian
General History of the Bahá'í Faith
The origin of the Bahá'í Faith is the Middle East. In
1844, a young merchant in
Persia named the Báb (1819-50) not only declared himself as the
spiritual reformer long-awaited by the Muslim World, but also proclaimed that
he was the harbinger of one who would succeed him. His challenge to secular
and clerical authorities led to his execution in Tabriz in 1850.
Bahá'u'lláh (1817-92) declared to be the "Manifestation of
God" anticipated by the Báb. In Tihran, he first received an intimation
of this mission in 1853 and more openly proclaimed it in 1863, in Baghdad,
after his forced exile there. After a succession of similar exiles, lasting 39
years, Bahá'u'lláh died in Akka, Palestine, in 1892.
Bahá'u'lláh's teachings emphasize a personal moral code based on
traditional religious ethics and embrace a liberal set of social teachings
focussed on the need for universal disarmament and peace, a world tribunal, a
universal auxiliary language, the equality of men and women, the harmony of
science and religion, the elimination of racism, and the abolition of the
extremes of poverty and wealth. His writings, which number some 5,000 letters
and over 100 books, amplify these and other moral principles and mystical and
social teachings. In 1892, Bahá'u'lláh died and, according to
his explicit wishes, the oldest son, `Abdu'l-Bahá (1844-1921) assumed
leadership of the Bahá'í community.
Under the guidance of `Abdu'l-Bahá, the Bahá'í
Faith spread to South America, South Africa, Australia, Japan, and Hawaii.
After some 55 years of exile, the revolution of the Young Turks released
`Abdu'l-Bahá from very restricted personal circumstances in 1908,
whereupon he undertook voyages to Egypt, Europe, and North America, spreading
the spiritual gospel of his father. `Abdu'l-Bahá gave the
Bahá'ís in North America spiritual and administrative primacy in
establishing the Bahá'í Faith around the world. His summary of
those teachings are sometimes referred to as the "Twelve Principles" of the
Bahá'í Faith and are still used today by many
Bahá'ís to sum up the main tenets of the Bahá'í
Upon `Abdu'l-Bahá's death in 1921, his will appointed his grandson,
Shoghi Effendi (1897-1957), to lead the Bahá'í Faith under the
title of Guardian. Under Shoghi Effendi, the Bahá'í community
spread from 35 to 257 countries. Shoghi Effendi, as authorized interpreter,
translated the Bahá'í Writings, clarified the nature of the
Bahá'í administrative order, drawn from the teachings of
Bahá'u'lláh, and assisted Bahá'í communities around
the world in laying the foundation of such an order. Upon his death in 1957,
authority was for a time assumed by a group of men and women, known as the
"Hands of the Cause of God," who had been appointed by Shoghi Effendi to act
as the "Chief Stewards" of the Bahá'í Faith. They prepared the
worldwide Bahá'í community for the election of the Universal
House of Justice in 1963. This latter body, anticipated by
Bahá'u'lláh, is the supreme administrative authority of the
Bahá'í Faith with the authority to legislate on matters not
expressly revealed in Bahá'u'lláh's writings.
The Bahá'í Faith today is primarily a Third-World
religious movement with over 80% of its adherents found in Third-World
countries. Numerically, the largest Bahá'í communities are found
in India, Iran, East Africa, parts of Southeast Asia, and the Andes. In some
South Pacific locations, Bahá'ís constitute as much as one-fourth
of the whole population.
A Short History of the Canadian Bahá'í Community
Although the first Bahá'í adherents could be found in Ontario as
early as 1898, it was not until the arrival of May Maxwell in Montreal, in
1902, that Bahá'í teaching work became permanently established.
Attracting initially a few people in the Montreal area, it was not until after
a brief sojourn by `Abdu'l-Bahá in Canada in 1912 that the
Bahá'ís formed themselves into a community. With the entry of
several young people in 1927, including a number of those of Jewish background,
did the community begin to grow. A scattering of Bahá'ís could
also be found in Saint John (New Brunswick) and Vancouver, in addition to a few
other isolated parts of the country.
A marked change in the Canadian Bahá'í community occurred after
1937 when Shoghi Effendi gave the Bahá'ís a plan to establish a
spiritual assembly in the
capitals of every province. That goal was achieved in 1944. The
Bahá'í community of Canada elected its own National Spiritual
Assembly in 1948, gaining an independent status from the National Spiritual
Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States and Canada. By
1948, the 263 Canadian Bahá'ís were thinly spread in over 40
localities. Today, Canadian Bahá'ís are found in some 1,400
places with a membership of ca. 22,000. Provinces and territories have not
only legally recognized Bahá'í marriage, but have given recognition to Bahá'í
holy days for the faith's school children. Many of its governing bodies are
incorporated and the Bahá'í community of Canada operates a secondary school
which grants the international baccalaureate.
The one defining feature that characterized the social and cultural adaptation
of the emerging Bahá'í community in Canada between 1898 and 1948,
is what I call religious singleness: the existence of a community of
believers who, by virtue of their few members, express their faith in terms of
their individual existence, while maintaining their individual ties to a wider
society which does not share their beliefs; the "wider" society encapsulates
even such small groups as one's family, as well as larger forms of social
organization, such as place of work, and social and civil institutions. The challenge for such a new
religious movement consists of maintaining a distinctive value system while
having soft and permeable boundaries. This feature is particularly relevant
today as the international context of new movements becomes more important than
their localized expressions of community.
Transplant Studies: Methodological Issues
It will be useful first to look at some of the themes and findings of other
studies that have considered the social process of adaptation and development
of transplanted religions. Not many scholarly treatments of the sociology of
religion deal with or have devoted much space or attention to new,
transplanted religious movements (more particularly, non-Christian
religions) settling in alien settings. One of the earliest sociological studies of this
genre was Lofland's Doomsday Cult (1966), a study of the "Moonies."
There have been others since then: Larry D. Shinn's The Dark Lord (1987)
about the Hare Krishnas, as well as another detailed study of the "Moonies,"
namely by David G. Bromley and Anson D. Shupe, Jr. (1979). However, other
treatments seem sparse. Bryan Wilson, for example, devotes only three
paragraphs in The Social Dimensions of Sectarianism (1990: 222-3) to the
spread of new religious movements from their native culture to others. He not
only speaks of the success of Western new religious movements in non-Western
societies but also of the limited appeal of non-Western movements in Western
society. Stark and Bainbridge discuss (1985) five groups, three of which are
non-Western (although they do present some valuable Canadian data on new
religious movements). Roger Finke and Rodney Stark (1992: 239-244) discuss
non-Western religious groups in the context of the nature of four "religious
eruptions" in the 20th century, two of which apply to transplanted religions,
namely the eruption of "religious novelty" in the 1960s and early 70s, and the sudden influx of Eastern
faiths at the same time in conjunction with the efflorescence of the counter-
and youth culture (e.g., Needleman and Baker, 1978; Wallis, 1984; Bryan
Wilson, 1981). Such scholarly works involve a narrow band of kinds of
transplanted religions selected for analysis. In particular, they explore the
new religious movements over a short time frame. The diversity of transplanted
religious groups that have found a home in Western society is not something
that appears as a prominent theme in such studies.
When we look at the diversity of Canada's transplanted religions, it seems
important to distinguish among several kinds of non-Western religious
movements. There are those based on immigrant ethnic populations, such as
Sikhs in British Columbia and Buddhists in Alberta (Coward and Kawamura, 1978)
and the Japanese in Canada (Mullins, 1989), and those, like the Bahá'ís, whose
national membership is mainly derived from recruits in the host society. Stark
and Bainbridge (1985) would add another kind: imported cults that do not even
have branches in the countries from which their founders came.
In an effort to explain the establishment (and the initial lack of growth) of
transplanted religions, conventional studies are more likely to consider the
"why," rather than the "how."
We learn that the reasons why non-Western religious groups can, if at all,
establish themselves in such new Western settings as Canada are varied. For
Wallis, new faiths offer an alternative to the "anonymity, impersonality,
achievement-orientation, individualism, and segmentation of modern life," or
are a response to the "pervasive features of advanced capitalist societies"
(1982: 228). In a similar vein, Anthony and Robbins (1982:243) see the
emergence of contemporary new religious movements as a response to moral
ambiguity, and as an attempt to rediscover clearly fixed moral meanings for
daily living. On a broader scale, but still looking at answers from the same
perspective, scholars will query the new religions' functional relevance in a
My purpose in giving a bird's eye overview of the various approaches to the
study of new religions in Western society is not to expound on the high- and
lowpoints of my research. Rather, my goal is to designate what I believe to be
a distinctive contribution of this study to the sociology of religion. First,
it does so by offering a long-term account of how a non-Western religious
community has become established in its host setting. The study involves a
timespan of 50 years, a much longer time period than is the case for many other
studies. This over-the-long-haul approach allows us to move away from an
ahistorical conception of movements that is characteristic of
Aside from scholarly work on indigenous religious life (e.g., Crysdale
and Wheatcroft, 1976: 69-99, e.v.), scholarly observations about religion in
Canada usually pertain to dominant or conventional religious groups, such as
Romans Catholics (e.g., Westhues, 1978), Protestants, and Jews (Kallen,
1976). We also seem to be reasonably well equipped with knowledge about
specific movements, such as sects and cults in Alberta (Mann, 1955) and in
Montreal (Bird and Reimer, 1976), Hutterites (e.g., Bennett, 1976), Mennonites
(Driedger and Peters, 1976), Mormons (White, 1978; Card et al, 1990),
and Christian Scientists (Hiller, 1978), all of whom Canadian sociologists
refer to as the third force (Hiller, 1978). Except for studies on
Canadian Jews (e.g., Schoenfeld, 1978; Brym and Shaffir, 1993) what is lacking
is detailed research on non-Christian or non-Western styles of religious
Finally, this study also allows me to provide an account of the origins of the
Bahá'í community in Canada, for there are simply no studies of
Bahá'ís in Canada.
Religion in Canada
Religion in Canada, during the first half of the 20th century, played a
formidable role in crystallizing the cultural, social, and economic forces of
the country. Religious life in Canada, with less religious diversity
than the United States, was dominated by four large denominations. It was, in
effect, a religious oligopoly (Westhues, 1976: 212-213, 220), which involved a
"significantly higher concentration [of religious affiliation] in a few
denominations and therefore a greater power of old traditions" (Stark and
Bainbridge, 1985: 461).
Towards the end of the 19th century, when the Bahá'ís made their
first appearance in Canada, 46.6% of the Canadian population were either
Methodists, Presbyterians, or Anglicans, while Roman Catholics represented
41.6% (Walsh, 1963: 156); only slightly over 10% of the population did not
belong to these four mainstream religious traditions. Between 1901 and 1951,
the changes in the religious affiliation of Canadians were only slight.
The first half of the 20th century produced some changes among the major
denominations in Canada, with a decline in the proportion of Catholics, but
reversed itself during the 1930s. Protestantism gave birth to the social
gospel movement--a Christian reform movement that arose in response to the
social ills of the industrial age (Fallding, 1978: 150). Nevertheless, the
proportion of Protestants began to decline, so that, by 1951, 40.9% adhered to
mainline Protestantism. After 1921, Canada also saw an increase of the
population adhering to other religious groups; the "non-religious" increased
from 0.1% in 1901, to 0.4% in 1951. Canada thus preserved its religiously
homogeneous image during this period.
Sociologists have characterized Canadian society in terms of its "religious
conservatism, congregational ecumenism, and cooperation," which make the
religious topography less suitable for sectarianism and third-force religious
activity (Hiller, 1978: 205). According to Stark and Bainbridge (1985: 504),
the "tendency for homogeneity to limit variety will be especially marked when
people live in relatively stable, small communities." In contrast, areas with
larger and denser concentrations of population are more able to sustain deviant
subcultures because ties to the normative culture are weak and anonymity
prevails in such places.
The religious solidity of Canadian life was also predicated on formal and
informal relations between the state and its main churches, notably the
Catholic and Anglican Churches. The "union churches" (Methodists,
Presbyterians, and Congregationalists) also played a leading role in setting
the religious temperament of Canada. The only way, it seems, that religious
minorities can exist in religious monocultures is in small pockets--as a sort
of religious singleness. I shall address this religious singleness when I
shall now discuss the source of recruits, recruitment strategies, and
membership and commitment. I shall also consider the culture and ideology that
pertain to the early facets of the Bahá'í community in Canada.
Recruitment and Membership
Sources of recruitment. My study, The Origins of the
Bahá'í Community of Canada, 1898-1948, has attempted to
carefully record the contributions of women to the Bahá'í
community of Canada, especially, as Janet Jacobs indicates (1991:352), because
there is a propensity of researchers to reinforce the group's perspective on
women by not being concerned with or acknowledging the role of women in various
facets of new religious movements. Women were a critical factor in the
dynamics of propagation of the new faith between 1898 and 1948. The
Bahá'í community consistently attracted a large proportion of
women, which constituted 70% of its membership (it is not unusual to have as
much as a 75%-female membership in new religious movements). This fact had several
implications for the Bahá'í community.
In the earlier periods the Bahá'í community was a magnet for
maternal suffragettes and social reformers. They saw the Bahá'í
Faith as a confirmation of their own ideals about anticipated social
change. Their main allegiance was to their own ideals, rather than to
Bahá'í ideals. The recruitment of these women to the
Bahá'í community was primarily the result of the personal
magnetism and capacities of individual Bahá'ís, such as May
Maxwell. While the incipient Bahá'í appeal largely involved
people of well-established means, the Bahá'í Faith increasingly
began to attract single, urban, lower middle-class women. This feature, given
the social context of the time, meant that Bahá'ís were primarily
reaching other single women, and that the strategy of holding public meetings
in hotels, rather than having living-room firesides, provided the most appropriate, and usually the
only, means for propagating the new faith. Without ties of marriage, and
sometimes trained in a technical occupation that gave them geographical
mobility, women also became the primary means by which the Bahá'í
Faith spread across Canada.
What accounts for the attraction of women to new religious movements in
general, and the Bahá'í Faith in particular? McGuire (1992:
126-129) sees some new religious movements as a "vehicle for the assertion of
alternative religious roles for women." She significantly suggests that in
their formative years, religious movements "of nonprivileged classes have
typically allotted equality to women" (McGuire, 1992: 126). Their relatively
low position in the traditional religions and the opportunity to become leaders
in new movements are the main reasons (Stark and Bainbridge, 1985: 413-414)
that women join these movements. Unlike the findings on the evolution of new
religious movements which seem to signal a return to "traditional,
hierarchical, or bureaucratic forms of authority" (McGuire, 1992: 128), the
Bahá'í community has explicitly affirmed in its own sacred
literature its teachings on the equality of women and men as evidenced in the
active participation of women as Bahá'í teachers and
administrators. There were, sometimes, practices in the Bahá'í
community that seem to undermine that participation (such as the traditional
assignment of women and men to particular committees), but these practices never overshadowed the
overall place and recognition of women as speakers, Bahá'í
teachers, pioneers, and the like. The participation of many single women in
Bahá'í communities highlights another facet of religious
singleness: the general absence of children. Sociologists have recorded the
difficult transition from first to later generations in a social movement's
membership (Ellwood, 1985: 15), underscoring the need to socialize children.
The early (pre-1927)
Canadian Bahá'í community was clearly a community of adults, the
"ideal" household of parents and children--who were all
Bahá'ís--existed only in a few circumstances. The pattern of
chidlessness persisted after 1927, although children became more in evidence in
the mid-1930s. I estimate that only 25% to 40% of the children remained
Bahá'ís after reaching the age of fifteen. This number was not
sufficient to supply the next generation of adherents, especially when one
considered that the range of other Bahá'ís for these children
later to marry was either non-existent or negligible.
The Bahá'í community was thus a childless one, both in fact
(with a few exceptions) and in orientation. Events were organized around
adults, and married couples with children tended to isolate the children from
the Bahá'í community. The presence of a disproportionate number
of single women heightened the sense of childlessness. As it was also not
uncommon to find couples with only one Bahá'í partner, we have a
sense of religious "singleness." It was a subculture of public meetings and,
in the case of a Bahá'í couple, living-room firesides--all
oriented towards adults.
The geographical distribution of Canadian Bahá'ís between 1898
and 1948 also contributed to their religious singleness. Especially after
1937, when Shoghi Effendi, Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, urged
the small band of Canadian Bahá'ís to move to those provincial
capitals which, as yet, had no Bahá'ís, many an individual
believer did find her- or himself alone and remote from her or his originating,
home community. True, she or he had already become acquainted with religious
singleness even in the home, urban community--there were too few
Bahá'ís to permit otherwise. But moving into a different part of
the country, more usually alone than with someone else, underscored the feeling
of religious singleness.
Even those who did not find themselves setting off alone to distant places in
Canada, reinforced their religious singleness by exercising a lifestyle that
seemed deviant. There was already a penchant of several people, either before
they joined the Bahá'í community or after enrolling, to be
activists in the field of technology, or in social reform. A number of other Bahá'ís were
actively in the forefront of racial amity work, such as those in Montreal and
Halifax, while others made a deliberate decision to protect the assets of
Japanese Canadians during war-time internment. Other adherents were
forerunners of "health fads" and the fight against fluoridation and were thus
known to take up causes that were controversial or far ahead of their time, or
that at least provoked thought in the general population. Consider also, for
example, the decision to join a religion with an esoteric-sounding name or to
pull up stakes and move to a remote part of the country to advance "the Cause."
Bahá'í membership thus increased or reinforced, not lessened,
certain unpopular or deviant lifestyles; these lifestyles provided a modicum
sense of community--something that later Bahá'ís would remember
or retell with obvious affection.
While initially the Bahá'í community attracted members of the
upper class, it successively moved to attract people of the managerial class
and, eventually, those with lower middle-class occupations. While in 1921 some
46% of the Bahá'ís were either upper- or managerial class, in
1947 it dropped to 18%. In the case of the lower-middle class and lower-class
origins, in 1921, 48% of Bahá'ís came from this background,
increasing to 75% in 1947 (van den Hoonaard, 1996). It is important to
remember that throughout this shift in class membership the dominant Protestant
flavour of Bahá'í communities still prevailed. There were few
cultural differences in the changing class composition of Bahá'í
membership, for what dominated the Bahá'í community was the
Protestant temperament and tone of the orientation of the community:
individualistic, organizationally focused, and with an emphasis on teaching the
so-called "twelve principles" of the Bahá'í Faith (rather than,
let us say, the station of Bahá'u'lláh as the Revelator).
The Protestant composition of Bahá'í membership was deeply
intertwined with other factors of religious outlook and class. Under these
circumstances, the Bahá'í community had a "Protestant accent"
which not only reinforced religious singleness but also made it more difficult
for members of other ethnic groups to join. In 1921, 89% of the
Bahá'ís came from a Protestant background, while in 1947, it was
75%--only a slight reduction. While in 1921, only 4% of the
Bahá'ís came from a Catholic background, they had increased to
12% in 1947 (van den Hoonaard, 1996).
Catholic or francophone adherents, before 1948, must have found the lack of
ritual and congregational prayer, the large number of single people and couples
without children, and the absence of family and social ties an odd landscape.
Such a social panorama lacked the familiar landmarks that could guide the
behaviour and thought of Bahá'ís who did not come from a liberal
Protestant background. The
Bahá'í community also seemed to have, in particular, attracted
the "creative" class, consisting of artists and the like--another factor that
fostered a religious singleness that might not have occurred if recruitment
involved a wider spectrum of people.
Recruitment Strategies. A new faith, in its early phase, tends to draw
recruits from very narrow strata or from small, homogeneous categories of
citizens. This is largely because "recruitment takes place primarily through
development of new social bonds linking members with prospective recruits or
through activation of existing interpersonal bonds..."(Stark and Bainbridge,
1985: 398). With its emphasis on individuality, personal responsibility, and
its proclivity towards organized modern life, Protestantism provided the
organizational basis for Bahá'í expansion. Notably, the use of
fireside meetings in the living-room and public meetings in hotels allowed the
Bahá'í community to attract both those who favoured home life and
those who preferred a neutral setting to teach and hear about the new religion.
As a religion of the living room and hotels, the Bahá'í community
must have also offered a new and challenging experience for members of various
ethnic backgrounds. For the early Bahá'ís (pre-1927) the new
religion did not, as yet, wrap itself completely around the social self. The
Bahá'ís had limited social knowledge of each other: along with
Bahá'í membership they maintained extensive ties to other
circles, often keeping them deliberately separate from the Bahá'í
community. Moreover, the Bahá'í community did not as yet pervade
all aspects of private and social life.
It was only when the Bahá'í community began attracting Jewish
members in Montreal in 1921 that the manner of propagation underwent change.
Bahá'ís of Jewish heritage were among the first to respond with
clarity and understanding to Shoghi Effendi's vision of the
Bahá'í Faith as one that encompasses a world order. The Jewish
contribution transformed a community that was inner-directed to one that became
open to the world. The vigour and erudition of those of Jewish descent
resulted in new orientation of the Bahá'í teaching work and in
literary contributions to the Bahá'í community.
There were other important shifts in Bahá'í propagation as the
work to spread the new religion shifted in the 1930s from the use of
specialized individuals to do this work, to the use of local communities and of
believers in general. Special mention should be made of the contribution of
Bahá'ís who, as businessmen, were in a position to undertake
extensive travels and lecture tours. Moreover, while previously new believers
were strongly oriented towards the personality of their specialized teachers,
the new conditions (i.e. when more Bahá'ís were involved with the
teaching work) produced believers who were encouraged to become oriented
towards the Bahá'í Writings, rather than to their
Membership and Commitment. One of the most intriguing questions
associated with transplanting non-Western new religious movements to Western
settings revolves around the genuineness of new, Western, converts. "Can
those," asks Gelberg (1991: 150), "in the new location who embrace the
transplanted tradition truly embrace it?" One of the empirical indicators is
commitment--a commitment expressed in length of membership in the new
Research on new religious movements shows that the average participant
associates intensely for a while and then drops out (Bird and Reimer, 1982;
Wallis, 1984: 42). Some, like Mickler, claim that the main problem of a new
religious movement is not the high turnover rate, but members who opt out of
active participation, while remaining nominal members (Mickler, 1991: 191).
The Bahá'í community offers a different picture from other
movements with a high turnover rate (Judah, 1974: 81, quoted by Wallis, 1984:
42). Between 1898 and 1948, the Bahá'í Faith, as a missionizing
religion, managed to attract over 550 people--all Canadians, three-quarters of
whom remained Bahá'ís for the rest of their lives. Moreover, the
proportion of those who stayed Bahá'ís for the rest of their life
increased between 1911 and 1948. In 1911, only 31% of Bahá'ís
would always remain committed members for the rest of their lives, while in
1948, it had risen to 74% (van den Hoonaard, 1996). The stress placed on
developing local governing councils and a community structure that involved
more aspects of the individual may partly account for such membership
commitment. Moreover, the Bahá'í Community in Canada until 1948
did not have a high rate of people who dropped out after being in the movement
for a short period of time. Margit Warburg of the University of Copenhagen
reports similar findings for the Danish Bahá'í community
(personal communication, 2 June 1993).
But how long did "non-lifers" remain in the Bahá'í community?
Although the proportion of "non-lifers" decreased to just over a quarter of all
Bahá'ís, so did the average length of their membership. In 1921,
a "non-lifer" would remain in the Bahá'í Faith for 14.2 years,
while by 1948, the average number of years had decreased by almost half to 7.7
years. There is no ready explanation for this observation. Perhaps stricter
membership criteria and more emphasis on maintaining a "Bahá'í
life" (implying a more rigorous individual and collective code of conduct) made
it less likely for less committed members to stay on as long as was previously
the case. There is some evidence that the intensification of the religious
element in new movements (such as is the case with Transcendental Meditation)
can cause a decline in the number of new members (Stark and Bainbridge, 1985:
The life-long membership commitments meant that the Bahá'í
community did not have to devise ways to deal with problems arising out of a
high membership turnover. Some sociologists (e.g., McCarthy and Zald,
1977) recognize the fact that it is very important for movements to secure
resources to continue their work. The Bahá'í approach to such
matters, as we have demonstrated, is rather different, because the
Bahá'í community retained its committed members and funds could
be received only from Bahá'ís on a voluntary basis.
Given the religious singleness of the early Bahá'ís in Canada,
the length of Bahá'í membership as an expression of commitment,
was remarkable. Such commitment was particularly unusual because the
Bahá'í subculture had boundaries that were soft and not clearly
Culture and Ideology
Cultural Adaptation. While Theosophy, Methodism, and Rosicrucianism
constituted the source religious outlook of many of the Bahá'ís
before the 1920s, it is clear that liberal Protestantism was the principal
anvil upon which the Bahá'í community was initially forged. With
the rise of the social gospel movement during the first two decades of the
twentieth century, a number of early Bahá'í members worked with
different personal agendas within the Bahá'í movement.
For early Bahá'ís, it was a matter of highlighting those
Bahá'í teachings that would speak to the larger cultural frame.
Since the attraction to a new faith is "greater among the unchurched and among
members of the most secularized and `liberal' denominations" (Stark and
Bainbridge, 1985: 399), the particular emphasis of Bahá'í
teachings (and methods) had to speak to the secular heart and mind. As a
consequence, the early Bahá'ís mixed the attraction of liberal
biblical interpretations, the principle of the equality of men and women, the
emphasis on universal peace and the elimination of the extremes of poverty and
wealth with their own crusading spirit which may have been derived from the
prevailing conditions of society at large.
A particularly noteworthy facet of what the early Bahá'ís
emphasized relates to the importance our culture attaches to the idea of the
"individual." They selected the following Bahá'í teachings as a
set of principles which emphasized individuality: the need for individuals to
seek truth independently of others, to assume individual
responsibility for their own spiritual development, and to spread the
Bahá'í teachings on a personal basis. Indeed, Wyman (1985: 103) offers a contemporary
illustration of the meaning of conversion to the Bahá'í Faith.
She found that conversion is about individual and personal growth--not
dissimilar to the larger American discourse about religious conversion.
Wyman's cultural analysis (1985) of the Bahá'í Faith shows how
religious discourse can be appropriated for other purposes. In the American
context, Bahá'í discourse is used as a tool for defining the self
and is about individualized psychology, and not about religious "truth" (Wyman,
1985: 103). Other researchers have noted similar processes of cultural framing
of the Bahá'í message (e.g. Peter Smith, 1987: 145). In a
more general context (van den Hoonaard, 1984), the orientation of
Bahá'ís towards the larger society can take one of several forms,
involving an "embryonic," "integrative," "oasis," or "composite" view.
Bahá'ís see the world, respectively, as a place where the
Bahá'í community is an embryo of the future society, where the
Bahá'í community and the world are converging, where the
Bahá'í community is a refuge from a declining civilization, or
where the needs of the Bahá'í community and those of the wider
society are intertwined.
Bahá'í Subculture. The structure of community and
organization bears directly upon a new religious group's ability to draw and
retain new members. Some scholars, like Beckford (1975: 83), have found that
if a movement fosters an "intensive form of community," rather than
mass-movement strategies, it is more likely to attract potential recruits,
especially when a new faith is seen as a haven, or refuge. The dilemma of
Bahá'í communities consisted of the difficulty of developing a
Bahá'í subculture with permeable and relatively "soft" boundaries
in the wider society. Slow growth may have been a concomitant consequence of
Archer, in her study of a contemporary, southern United States
Bahá'í community (1977: 239), offers the thoughtful observation
that the Bahá'í community's inability to attract many members
reflects "the group's inability to create rewards that compete with the secular
world's." According to her, the Bahá'í dilemma is to make its
"intellectual and sacred rewards ... attractive to people who want instrumental
rewards" (Archer, 1977: 239). Such "competitive awareness" exposes a
Bahá'í to the "attractions" of both worlds, in contrast to
Christian sects that maintain their identity in relative isolation from the
larger society. Their (i.e. Christian sects') moral rejection of
society disallows competitive awareness, but permits the rapid emergence of a
distinctive subculture. But how did the Bahá'í community in the
period surveyed allow competitive awareness, and what was its impact on
Bahá'í identity and culture?
Ralph Turner's work on norm emergence or cultural construction in the early
age of a social movement is particularly relevant here (Turner and Killian,
1987: 35-51). The Bahá'í community subculture appeared to be
both fragile and variable. At last, during the 1930s and 1940s, when the
Bahá'í community took a more definite form and a blueprint of
Bahá'í life began to emerge, we found changes in the fragile
subculture. Oriented initially towards individualism, this subculture did not
emphasize knowledge of fellow Bahá'ís outside their role as
participating believers--Bahá'ís knew little about each other.
As well, there were few, if any, study classes held about Bahá'í
community, administration, and organization, which would provide them with the
necessary knowledge to develop and maintain a subculture.
While the Bahá'í sacred writings prescribed a religious moral
code, this prescription depended mainly on the ability of Bahá'ís
to form a community with an administrative framework to set the boundaries of
the community. The earliest adherents were sometimes quite unaware of what
Bahá'í scriptures said about the need to maintain such a
code--too few scriptures had been translated into English--and the believers
generally followed the societal standards. Without a definite
Bahá'í community to which they could attach themselves, the
earliest Bahá'ís saw themselves as "morally normative" (Kent,
1993). It was much later, in the 1930s, after Shoghi Effendi had translated
additional Bahá'í writings, that a distinct moral code came into
being. As a rule, then, as the Bahá'í community grew, moral
codes of behavior became stricter.
Before 1927 there were differences between the old and new
Bahá'ís. Such differences were particularly apparent in the
mid-1920s when Bahá'ís were being transformed into an organized
community, rather than a mere collection of individuals who were likely to cast
the Bahá'í teachings in Christianized terms. The newer
Bahá'ís tended to be more worldly and were administratively
zealous. Some Christianized elements did, however, persist even among this
latter group, who continued to hold weekly Sunday meetings, rather than
attaching more importance to the Nineteen-Day Feast, a distinct
Bahá'í social invention and institution. When members began to
realize though that the Bahá'í Faith also included an
administrative system, differences between old and new believers became even
In the Bahá'í case, there were several factors that disallowed
the potential source of the above-mentioned difficulties. First, the
relatively small size of communities made it virtually impossible not to elect
new members, whether youthful or not. However small the Bahá'í
communities, there was still an elected, local governing council (in the case
of nine or more adherents), or a locally elected group (in the case of eight or
fewer members) which during the first half of the century precluded limiting
membership on these bodies to old timers: there were simply not enough
adherents in any given Bahá'í community who could have not been
elected. Second, the permanently vested authority of their Founder,
Bahá'u'lláh, as a Prophet, precluded any consideration of a
Bahá'í claiming to possess a new revelation. Even the Head of
the new faith, Shoghi Effendi, did not, or could not make such a claim. Third,
numerous references in the Bahá'í sacred writings clearly specify
that one cannot disassociate the Bahá'í organizational structure
from the Bahá'í Faith itself (see, e.g., Shoghi Effendi,
Nevertheless, the question of open boundaries, the slow development of a
Bahá'í culture, and the attendant slow membership growth might
well have created a "crisis of confidence" which awaits most new religious
movements as members of the founding generation reached the end of their lives.
Without major successes in its early days, there was the danger that the early
Bahá'ís might "lose hope and turn the movement inward--adopt a
new rhetoric that de-emphasizes growth and conversion" (Rodney Stark, cited by
Mickler, 1991: 188). The satisfaction of membership might have constituted a
major problem in no-growth groups which seemed largely to have been sustained
"by participation in a small exclusivist closed circle, turned away from the
world, and engaged in unpublicized meetings designated for those attached to
that closed circle" (O'Toole, 1975: 170). Such a crisis seemed inevitable as
Bahá'ís were more likely to remain longer in their religion than
is the case for other new religious movements.
A number of countervailing forces prevailed in the fledgling
Bahá'í community. First, Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the
Bahá'í Faith, gave the Bahá'ís in Canada a teaching
plan which included the establishment of at least one governing council
(spiritual assembly) in each of the provinces in Canada. It was a systematic
approach that pulled Bahá'ís beyond the familiar confines of
their own local community, whether secular or religious. Second, Shoghi
Effendi's own prolific store of letters, ca 22,000 of them (Universal House of
Justice, 1973: 28), repeatedly focussed the vision of the Bahá'ís
on the needs of the wider society. Third, as the Bahá'í message
unequivocally focussed on the redemption of society, rather than
individual salvation, the Bahá'í outlook was already, from its
earliest conception, directed towards the larger society (see, e.g.,
Heller and Mahmoudi, 1991). Fourth, the idea of service to society is a strong
current in the Bahá'í message, both implicit and explicit (see,
e.g., Buck, 1990). The spirit of service is seen as the source of both
personal and collective development.
Permeable Boundaries and Ideology. In discussing the "deep-rooted
sources of popular sentiment" concerning new religious groups in another
country, namely Britain, Beckford found that wider cultural values and social
arrangements decide where the boundary should be set between the new group and
the society (Beckford 1982: 286). He also found that such decisions are about
the cultural view that the individual is basically rational and free. In other
words, as long as new religious groups do not involve "brainwashing,"
"self-harm," "external control," "infantilization," "drift," "fanaticism,"
"instability," or "family indifference," society's tolerance of those groups is
high (Beckford 1982: 288-298).
As Archer (1977: 221) noted, contemporary Bahá'ís are committed
to an approach which "involves internalized values and development of
mechanisms that will maintain those values without the support of a closed
social environment." There were specific organizational mechanisms, however,
that supported a lifestyle appropriate to a group ideology, which
Bahá'is could follow without leaving the larger cultural environment
(e.g., Archer, 1980). Other present-day observers have, in fact,
commented on the "invisibility" of the Bahá'í community in that
regard (Ruff, 1974). Their observations underscore a persistent theme in the
maintenance of the Bahá'í subculture in Western society, namely
the existence of soft and permeable boundaries, while following a distinctive
How did the Bahá'í subculture reflect soft boundaries and what
shape did the Bahá'í value system take? Bahá'ís
saw the wider society neither as a place to turn away from nor as a place to be
spiritually feared. Their community did not morally reject society, but,
rather, promoted the active engagement of its followers in that society, more
so than, for example, the Vedantists who demonstrated a "quietist,
non-interventionist and generally accomodative" attitude towards the wider
society (Whitworth and Shiels, 1982: 167).
The Bahá'í community in the Western world also discouraged
breaks with society (as in the illustrated example of the discouraging of plans
to create, near Montreal, a separate Bahá'í village and economy).
Many Bahá'ís, until the mid-1930s, continued church membership,
and individual Bahá'ís were inspired to implement
Bahá'í teachings outside the Bahá'í community,
rather than forging these teachings exclusively within the community. This
ideological position differs considerably from what O'Toole found in his study
(1975) of a non-Western political sect, which expected its members to place
themselves completely at the disposal of the group. As a consequence, the
group attempted to isolate the member from familial and other personal ties
outside the political cult. The use of a distinctive, esoteric, and "sacred"
language reinforced their exalted, exclusive position as a moral elite
(O'Toole, 1975: 166-168).
Moreover, lacking a clergy, there were no people assigned to mark boundaries
in the Bahá'í community. Lacking a system of "elders,"
membership on local governing councils (i.e., Spiritual Assemblies) was
fluid--voting was democratic, and in secret, and no special privileges or
powers seemed to derive from such membership. Moreover, Spiritual Assembly
agendas were generally outward looking, with roughly one-third devoted to each
of internal administration, Bahá'í community, and concerns with
the wider society. Nevertheless, the presence of administratively zealous
Bahá'ís reinforced the process of marking social boundaries.
Finally, as members of a young, missionizing religion, there was no
inclination among the Bahá'ís to gather in one place, but rather
to spread out over many places in Canada, with however few people. Even though
contemporary Bahá'í communities have become more fully developed,
Bahá'ís "do not separate themselves geographically nor do they
reject participation within selective patterns of the surrounding culture"
(Archer, 1977: 216). Still, within these soft boundaries the
Bahá'í community began to develop a distinctive system of values.
As we already noted, the Bahá'ís began increasingly to emphasize
the strict moral code that was increasingly being perceived as the core of the
Bahá'í sacred writings, and "Bahá'í life" that
would mark them as different people in their daily life.
The culture of the Bahá'í community increasingly began using
other cultural markers derived from the greater availability of
Bahá'í sacred writings. As noted by Archer (1977: 223),
Bahá'ís depended on language and a distinct Bahá'í
calendar. Donating to the Bahá'í Fund was another way of marking
a boundary and creating a Bahá'í identity as only
Bahá'ís were (and still are) allowed to contribute to the
Bahá'í Fund (Warburg, 1993: 29). Finally, the Nineteen-Day Feast represented
another boundary between the Bahá'í community and the wider
society because only Bahá'ís were (and still are) permitted to
attend these monthly Bahá'í gatherings.
The slow and gradual emergence of a distinctive Bahá'í
subculture was the consequence of not having a closed social environment.
Thus, we may infer that slow growth was the price of permeable boundaries
between the Bahá'í community and the wider society.
Societal Reaction. To what extent was mainstream society prepared to
reject or accept the Bahá'í movement? Any missionizing community
is confronted by the problems of anonymity and of social legitimacy. New
religious movements in North America are more likely to pursue ways to make
them less invisible, while movements in Europe see the attainment of social
legitimacy as their goal. As Mickler shows (1991: 192-3), new religious
movements must attain public visibility; to survive, they must escape
The Bahá'ís in Canada did not, during 1898-1948, exist in a
state of high tension with the wider society. Still, variables such as size of the movement and
the influence of such events as war, and political and social conditions, can
shape reactions to a movement beyond its control. For example, the years of
World War II created a hostile environment in Canada for new ideas and
unfamiliar messages and people. The existence of such a hostile environment
coincided with Bahá'í plans to expand their religion to major
centres across Canada. For Bahá'ís, it meant that the
opportunities for expansion were constrained, and it was often difficult to
keep Bahá'í communities viable.
Nevertheless, there seemed to have been other aspects of the War Years that
played a critical part in the development of the Canadian Bahá'í
community. World War II forced the Canadian Bahá'í community,
through Canadian currency laws, to assume control over its own development and
education. The issue of non-combatant status also rose to the fore during
this period, creating a deeper understanding of where Bahá'ís
stood with reference to war and politics.
In retrospect, the Bahá'í community of Canada before 1948 seems
to have had no direct impact on Canada's religious, social, or political
structures. Between 1898 and 1948, some 555 Bahá'ís lived in 84
locales across Canada. In 59 of these (70%), there were no immediate and
visible consequences of the Bahá'í teaching activity. In another
fifteen locales (18%), teaching efforts resulted in the establishment of a
Bahá'í community, however weak, and in ten others (12%)
Bahá'ís formed enduring and relatively strong communities. Our
study replicates the findings of other transplanted religious movements in the
Bahá'í community's reliance on women to spread the
Bahá'í Faith, in its mainly childless orientation, and in its
urban character. In contrast, a lowering class membership and the
Bahá'í community's reinforcement of an unpopular lifestyle does
not echo the findings about other new religions.
What is new, however, is the degree to which the early Bahá'í
subculture and propagation accentuate the Protestant mainspring of its early
adherents. Along with its ethos as generally a childless community and its
spread-out nature, the primarily Protestant accent of the Bahá'í
community reinforced religious singleness. Lacking a clergy and formal
buildings of worship, this religion of the living room and hotel embodied a
community with "soft" boundaries. Such permeable boundaries did not prevent
its developing a system of distinctive values consisting of a
Bahá'í administrative structure and a stricter moral code. It is
this openness that allowed members to maintain life-long commitments to the new
No findings about the social and cultural adaptation of new religious
movements in host societies are complete without recognizing the international
dimensions that provide the larger context of such movements. The theme of
religious singleness should not blind us from recognizing the important role
that the international scope of new religious movements play in their
adaptation to Western (and non-Western) settings.
The International Context of Contemporary non-Western Religions
A study of the Canadian Bahá'í community reinforces the vital
importance of considering minority religions as an expression of their
international scope. Such an approach implies an extensive reconsideration of
the study of unconventional religions, or cults, which can occur by importation from another
society. As some scholars have already indicated, a religious group can be a
"cult in one society while being a conventional faith in another--Hinduism is a
cult in the United States and Christianity is a cult in India" (Finke and
Stark, 1992: 295). While focussing only on the character of an unconventional
religion in a local setting, we may fail to see that what counts are its
international ramifications: we would be mistaken to believe that the relevance
of the presence of a local "chapter" of such a religion in, let us say, Flin
Flon, Manitoba, is determined by its small size, rather than its importance as
an outpost of a vast, expanding international religious organization.
Most importantly, however, the contemporary study of new religious movements
requires us to extend our boundaries to take in non-Christian movements, and to
do so in an international context. Robbins and Robertson (1991: 320), in
discussing the ideological context of the "scientific study of religion,"
suggest that such an approach was articulated in an era of relative religious
non-controversiality, whereby non-Christian religions were "assumed to be
connected with a marginal bohemian intelligentsia." In their view, such an
approach continues to pervade the scientific study of religion. A further
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religious movements inadvertently created the impression that the "new
religions were nothing more than a more or less interesting product of the
social upheavals of the 1960s." The slow growth of new religions, moreover,
reinforced that impression.
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our understanding of new religious movements. It is the advent of instant
travel and international communication, not the perception that the viability
of movements should be measured by their local strength, that provides us with
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Networks in an American
Religious Movement." Department of Anthropology, Catholic University,
 This paper is extracted from the
author's book manuscript, The Origins of the Bahá'í Community
of Canada, 1898-1948, which will be published by Wilfrid Laurier University
Press. I would like to thank the Social Sciences amd Humanities Research
Council of Canada for a research grant in support of my research and the Aid to
Scholarly Publications Programme for its publication subvention. Dr. Chris
Barriger of McGill University has been helpful in particular with his
constructive comments in preparing the article for publication. This paper is
a revision of the one presented on my behalf by Dr. Anne Pearson at the Annual
Meetings of the Canadian Society for the Study of Religion, Montreal, June
 A spiritual assembly is the Bahá'í local
governing council. It consists of nine members, elected annually, by secret
ballot, from among the adults believers, to govern the administrative affairs
of the respective Bahá'í community. Nominations and
electioneering are strictly prohibited. A national spiritual assembly
governs the affairs of a country's Bahá'í community.
 The Bahá'í Writings prohibit
Bahá'ís from taking part in partisan politics, but encourage them
individually to exercise their full civic rights and duties, such as voting,
 Eastern Spirituality in America (Ellwood, 1987:
235-36) gives a list of a dozen general works on Eastern religions in North
America, of which fewer than six are case studies of specific religions.
 Bellah (1970) speaks of civil religion and new religious
movements as "survivors of the crisis of meaning that characterized the
sixties." To get an overview of a number of these new faiths, the reader will
find some satisfaction in E. Allen Richardson's work, East Comes West
(1985) with historical synopses of Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Muslims.
 Raymond Brady Williams' Religions of Immigrants from
India and Pakistan: New Threads in the American Tapestry (1988) is a good
example of similar research of immigrant religions in the United States.
 See, e.g., Glock and Stark (1965) and Lofland and
 Namely, either as a consequence of rationalization or
secularization (e.g., Beckford, 1982, 1989; Coser, 1897: 458; Johnson,
1977; Robbins and Anthony, 1978; Wallis, 1984: 41; Bryan Wilson, 1976: 99,
 The general dissatisfaction with some of the
above-mentioned approaches does not diminish when we turn our gaze to
scholarship on the Bahá'í Faith in North America, which has been
coming to the fore only since the mid 1980s. Two of the more thorough accounts
of Bahá'í history in North America (Stockman, 1985 and 1995)
omitted, due to lack of materials on the subject when they were written,
substantive references to early Canadian Bahá'í history. In
recent years, however, a number of studies on Bahá'í communities
elsewhere in the world have added to the growing field of Bahá'í
studies. The Bahá'í movement has been examined in India
(Garlington, 1975; Garrigues, 1975), the United States (Berger, 1954;
Bramson-Lerche, 1981; Peter Smith, 1982; Archer, 1977), New Zealand (Ross,
1979), and Denmark (Warburg, 1992; 1993). For that matter, it is encouraging
now to see two major doctoral studies underway by Lynn Howe (1995) at
University of Essex and Paula Drewek (1995) at the University of Ottawa. The
former uses detailed life-narrative analysis of 20 Canadian
Bahá'ís, while the latter explores faith development in Canada
As for the Canadian Bahá'í community, memoirs have either not
yet been written by Canadian Bahá'ís, or are just now being put
on paper. There are only several unpublished regional and national histories,
relying often on secondary sources (e.g., Paula Williams, 1985; O'Neil,
1975; Pemberton-Pigott, 1988). Gerald Filson (1982) wrote a Master's report on
the role of media in a specific information campaign in the Canadian
Bahá'í community. There are infrequent references to Canadian
Bahá'í history in Canadian Bahá'í journals. One
finds hardly any articles delving into the past, except for a one-page article,
notable for its lack of detail (Anon., 1979), and one on Prince Edward Island
(Rolfe, 1987). A brief article on early British Columbia Bahá'í
history (McGee and McGee, 1983) also exists. This dearth is reinforced by the
scattered and unorganized nature of the National Bahá'í Archives
 Even in the 1970s, three religious bodies included
almost 9 out of 10 Canadian religious adherents (Westhues, 1976: 213).
 Successful movements, however, appear not to
overrecruit females (Stark and Bainbridge, 1985: 416). The under-recruitment
of males, Stark and Bainbridge found (1985: 416), leads to a situation where
much conversion will be necessary just for replacement, let alone growth. As
well, as long as women have less status than men, the movement will also
"suffer lower status, and fail to penetrate into the social mainstream" (Stark
and Bainbridge, 1985: 417). Stark and Bainbridge's unfelicitious choice of
words when they speak of women who "enjoy [emphasis mine] less status
than men" (1985: 417) partially underscores the difficulty of removing
unconscious biases and figures of speech, despite good intentions.
 The term "fireside" was coined in the early 1930s to
refer to informal discussions usually in one's home with the purpose of
acquainting "seekers" or non-Bahá'ís with the
 For example, local committees that dealt with
children's classes had a higher proportion of women than, let us say, a finance
committee which consisted primarily of men.
 "Early" in this chapter refers to the pre-1927 period
in the Canadian Bahá'í community when
Bahá'í-membership criteria were not yet well defined.
 The loss of Bahá'í documents and vital
papers through this process of attrition is of primary consequence for
 Such as Paul Dealy at the turn of the century and his
invention to dispose of ashes from train steam engines.
 I cite the examples of Honoré Jaxon (the former
secretary of Louis Riel) and Dr. Rose Henderson (a prominent educator and
social worker in the first third of the 20th century). May Maxwell should also
be cited, although, unlike these other two, she remained a Bahá'í
for the full length of her life and was active on the front of removing racism
and the promotion of social measures in the field of education, poverty, and
 Wyman offers us the view, based on her anthropological
study of an American Bahá'í community, that contemporary
Bahá'ís regard their religion in the same manner as the dominant
main-stream culture: religion is property of individuals; it does not exist
outside them (Wyman, 1985: 167). Some religionists would disagree with Wyman's
assessment (see, e.g., Quinn, 1995).
 Deborah K. van den Hoonaard is currently (1996)
collecting materials for a study on the Jewish experience in the
 Such an emphasis on individualism, however, differs in
the Bahá'í religion from Wallis' conception of "epistemological
individualism" (Wallis, 1975: 41) which "leaves the determination of what
constitutes acceptable doctrine in the hands of the member." Moreover, the
idea of the Covenant is a pervasive one for Bahá'ís which
leaves the determination of doctrinal matters vested in the hands of
`Abdu'l-Bahá or his designated successor, Shoghi Effendi. The idea of
members' determining doctrine is quite foreign to Bahá'ís.
 Similarly, in a study of Swedish new religious
movements (such as ISKCON) Nordquist (1982: 178) found that the "inner state of
being" of an adherent's lifestyle was the critical touchstone, not abstract
reasoning or material success.
 It is interesting to note that Wyman's study (1985)
seems to ignore the various world views of the Bahá'ís.
 O'Toole's comments (1975: 170) are insightful: "Members
would gain satisfaction from disguising failure: small, in-house meetings which
resulted in a handful of attendees (mostly members); emphasis on the `energy
and diligence' of those spreading the word (rather than the results); a stress
on the `potential' effect of a particular action. Even activities were
destined to fail: the targetting of anonymous audiences in parking lots with
traditionalistic, uneconomical, and unpromising leaflets, and the calculated
avoidance of strategic targets. Political sects seem primarily concerned with
keeping the status quo, despite their claims to strive for growth."
 The fact that only Bahá'ís were permitted
to contribute to the Bahá'í Fund is valid for the period later
than the early 1920s.
 For a discussion on this aspect of wider societal
relationships, see Stark and Bainbridge (1985) and also Benton Johnson
 Finke and Stark (1992:295) use the term "cult" in a
technical rather than pejorative sense. While a sect represents conventional
faith, a cult is an "unconventional religion." See also Stark and Bainbridge