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Written for possible inclusion in The Bahá'í Encyclopedia. Posted with permission of both the author and of the editor of the Encyclopedia project.

Circumpolar Regions (Arctic):
History of the Baha'i Faith

by Will C. van den Hoonaard

        Circumpolar World (a.k.a. Arctic). In a strict sense, the world's Arctic regions are circumscribed by the 10_ C. isotherm for July. In the more common meaning of the term, it is the area of the world north of the tree-line found in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, and Siberia. This article, however, adopts the Bahá'í usage of the term which tends to be even broader because it also includes the subarctic, an area between the treeline and the northern limits of agriculture. The area shares a common climate in which the inhabitants "created the culture and the physical techniques to survive in the earth's harshest regions" (Schuurman, 1992).

        With an estimated population of 2,100,000 north of the treeline, some 2 million are not native to the region.[1] 117,000 are found in the 11 Eskimo tribes, known as Yupik in Siberia, Eskimos in Alaska, Innu in Canada, and Greenlanders in Greenland. There are at least 60 other circumpolar tribal groups, including the Saami (formerly known as Lapps), and various others in Russia and Siberia.

        Significance of Circumpolar World in Bahá'í Writings. Both Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá singled out the circumpolar world for special mention in their writings. Shoghi Effendi reinforced the special significance of the area in terms of Bahá'í development and its place in the world in general.

        Bahá'u'lláh accorded to circumpolar inhabitants (as well as to those in southern extremes) an exemption not to rely on sunrise or sunset for the purpose of the fast, but to rely on clocks instead (Synopsis of Aqdas, 37). (In this connection, the Universal House of Justice has confirmed that it is permissible to go by the clock when holding Nineteen-Day Feasts and Holy Days)[2]

        `Abdu'l-Bahá, in Tablets of the Divine Plan, underscored the importance of teaching the Bahá'í Faith in several circumpolar countries. For Alaska, he offered the hope that "the breezes of the rose garden of the love of God may perfume the nostrils of [its] inhabitants" (TDP: 9-10). For Greenland and Canada, he promised that if their Arctic peoples respond to the Bahá'í message, "its effects will be very great and far-reaching" (TDP: 50, 53). Some 14 of the 167 geographical places mentioned by `Abdu'l-Bahá in Tablets of the Divine Plan are situated in the circumpolar world.[3]

        Shoghi Effendi encouraged the Bahá'ís to spread their religion to the Arctic when he summoned them to raise "Earthly symbols of Bahá'u'lláh's unearthly Sovereignty ... as far north as Franklin [in Canada] beyond the Arctic circle."[4] He attached "the greatest importance to Alaska, and it will become increasingly important in the future."[5] He described Bahá'í work in the far north as a "strenuous yet highly meritorious obligation."[6] Although the circumpolar world has only 0.04% of the world's population, Bahá'í interest is gauged to be very high, given the fact that 8.0% of the Knights of Bahá'u'lláh pioneered to this area.[7] Bahá'ís often refer to the circle of circumpolar Bahá'í communities as the "necklace of pearls" around the top of the planet (e.g. Bond, 1992).

        The purpose of reaching the circumpolar peoples with the Bahá'í message ranges from the general to the specific. First, it would reinforce the representative character of a rapidly developing community" (CF: 11). Second, the work would have "repercussions in other countries" (SML:[8] 6) where minority populations must be taught. Third, the "northern fringes of the Western Hemisphere" is a region that will "play a prominent part in the shaping of the destinies" of humankind (HE: 31). Fourth, as in the case of Canada, the country's "collective and historical task" (MC: 61) depends on these "hard-won prizes." Some seven of the thirteen goal areas during the Ten-Year Crusade (1953-63) were assigned to the Canadian Bahá'í community.

        There are currently (1994) eight national spiritual assemblies that are involved in circumpolar Bahá'í work, namely Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, and the Regional Spiritual Assembly of Russia, Georgia, and Armenia.

        History of Bahá'í Teaching Efforts. To those unused to the harsh climate and geography of the circumpolar world, efforts to spread the Bahá'í Faith can be an isolating, lonely, and difficult experience. As a consequence, such efforts have proceeded at a much slower pace than elsewhere in the world, and with considerable more sacrifices. The time lapse between the arrival of the first pioneer and the first indigenous believer could take up to 13 years, while in the more difficult areas, it would take as many as 19 years after the arrival of the first pioneer and the establishment of a local spiritual assembly. One pioneer likened the establishment of one local spiritual assembly in the Arctic comparable in effort to establishing a dozen local assemblies in an industrialized country (Bond, 1992: 11). It seems that Bahá'í pioneers have had to work in what may be considered traditionally gendered occupations: Bahá'í women worked in stores, offices, schools, and hospitals, where recruitment was local; men were usually hired outside the region for positions in governmental agencies or performed manual or independent work (e.g. students)

        Four phases mark the development of the Bahá'í Faith in the circumpolar world.

        The first phase (1905 - 1948) opened with visits by Bahá'í women to Alaska and the Yukon since 1905.[9] Little is known of the fate of the only male teacher to have made an early visit to the North, a certain DeLevier, in 1925, to "work among the Esquimaux."[10] Alaska was permanently settled by Bahá'ís in 1939[11] and the Yukon 14 years later.

        The European North also saw the visits of teachers, such as Amelia Collins to Iceland in 1924[12] and Martha Root in 1935.[13] Nellie French visited Spitzbergen in 1939.[14] With the exception of Iceland's first believer, few visible results issued from any of these visits.

        The second phase (1948-1971) was the most significant one for securing a more permanent Bahá'í foothold in the north, opening three fronts:

        For the European North, the 1950 European Teaching Conference in Copenhagen resulted in a fresh impetus to reach the Arctic. Two Americans[15] opened the Lofoten Islands in 1953[16] and in 1955, a pioneer reached Reals Kolen, Batsfjord, Norway (70_36'N.Lat.).[17] A Brit opened Spitsbergen in 1958.[18] The Saami area in northern Norway saw the formation of a spiritual assembly in Trondheim in 1969[19] and the enrollment of the first Saamis.[20] A Norwegian couple reopened Spitzbergen in 1970.[21]

        In Greenland, a young Dane became the first pioneer in 1951. Shoghi Effendi indicated, through his secretary, the opening of Greenland and Arctic Canada as the "opening stage of the plan to carry the [Bahá'í] Faith to the Eskimos, a plan set forth by `Abdu'l-Bahá and very dear to His heart" (Messages to Canada: 24). One of the most northerly places in the world, Thule, received its first pioneer in 1953, remaining there until 1972.[22]

        In Canada's North, the first pioneer arrived in 1950 at Coral Harbour[23] and a few others soon followed. By 1951, a Canadian Inuit had already enrolled in the Bahá'í Faith.[24] Labrador received its first Bahá'í settlers in 1954.[25] Several Bahá'í Arctic Policy Conferences in Canada provided the spiritual and administrative wherewithall in establishing the Bahá'í Faith in Canada's North and in Greenland. The most northerly inhabited place in the world was visited in summer 1965 by a Bahá'í, William Carr, was Alert Bay, Canada, situated fewer than 800 km from the North Pole at 82_7'.[26]

        The third front was Alaska itself. By 1953, 13 areas had been opened to the Bahá'í Faith,[27] including Unalaska[28] and Baranof.[29] A small contingent of Natives and Eskimos had begun accepting the Bahá'í Faith. In 1955, Fairbanks, the gateway to Alaska's North, had formed its spiritual assembly.[30] The Aleut chain of islands stretching far across the Northern North Pacific required a deep commitment on the part of the Bahá'í pioneers, and many of these islands were settled by the late 1960s.[31]

        The third phase (1971-1988) started in September 1971 with the holding of the Northern North Atlantic Conference in Reykjavik, Iceland. The Universal House of Justice said that the conference "marked the opening of a new phase in the collaboration between the nothern communities on both sides of the ocean."[32] By 1974, all the major place between Finland and Greenland were opened to the Bahá'í Faith, several of whom formed their first local Spiritual Assembly and several buildings, such as in in Nuuk[33] (formerly Godthaab) were purchased. In 1976, the first pioneer to East Greenland, Ola Okfors, arrived in Tuno.[34]

        In Canada, three specially established "Bahá'í Homes" (in Yellowknife, Baker Lake,[35] Iqaluit (formerly Frobisher Bay)) in the Northwest Territories helped to maintain a visible Bahá'í presence in the area in the late 1960s. The Yukon Teaching Institute, Whitehorse, was dedicated in 1984.[36]

        Developments in Alaska led the way in major shifts in the matter of involving the circumpolar peoples themselves in the decision-making process. "Native Councils"--begun in 1974--saw a new level of participation by circumpolar peoples, an example that was quickly followed in Canada, where "Spirit North" gatherings were organized by far-northern peoples since 1986.

        The fourth phase (1988- ) represents a maturation of the Bahá'í circumpolar work in Europe, Greenland, Canada, and Alaska. For example, Spitsbergen underwent a considerable increase of Bahá'í enrollments.[37] Greenland formed its own national spiritual assembly in 1992. Both Canada and Alaska witnessed the emergence of more local spiritual assemblies and a greater involvement with the wider society.

        The opening up of the Russian far north due to the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics also characterized this phase of Bahá'í circumpolar work. In 1992, Bahá'ís opened two localities in the Russian part of Spitsbergen.[38] The time to bring the Bahá'í Faith to the Asiatic Arctic had also arrived. Various Bahá'í travelling teaching trips by prominent Bahá'ís[39] and teaching teams.[40] The Bahá'ís of Alaska began playing a particularly noteworthy role in that regard. Taking advantage of cultural[41], civic,[42] and professional exchanges (involving, e.g. teachers and nurses),[43] in addition to direct-Bahá'í work, the Alaskan Bahá'í community assisted in the establishment of Bahá'í groups in Siberia.

        General Character of Current Bahá'í Teaching Efforts. Three elements characterize the Bahá'í teaching work in the circumpolar world.

        Summer Teaching Projects. Climatic considerations produced a proliferation of summer teaching projects. With the long winter night and with the fewness of Bahá'ís in the far north, it seems more beneficial to undertake summer teaching projects. Not only is the climate more hospitable, but the summer allows young people, including university students, to commit time to travelling across the circumpolar world.

        Teaching across International Borders. As northern peoples share a mutual sense of kinship across borders, it stands to reason that Bahá'í efforts involve teaching across international borders, These teaching efforts fall into three categories. First, it is not uncommon for Bahá'í pioneers to the far north to have lived in several parts of the circumpolar world, capitalizing on their valuable experiences.[44] Second, Bahá'ís have formed teaching teams across the circumpolar region. In the early phase, in Europe, one found northern teams across the three Scandinavian countries.[45] Third, circumpolar travelling teachers have begun to visit more southerly parts of the world, especially Europe and Latin America; a case in point if "Trails of Light" Project.[46] In Summer 1978, an Indian-Inuit teaching team from Canada visited 10 European countries. More recently, Alaskan teams into Siberia have met with success.

        Conferences. Due to the isolation of circumpolar Bahá'í communities, such gatherings assume a great importance in their collective life.At first, conferences and summer/winter schools were organized by Bahá'í bodies in the south. After a series of international conferences in Reykjavik (1971), Anchorage (1976), and Helsinki (1976), conferences and summer schools in the Arctic are increasingly being organized by and for northern believers themselves.

        Distinctive Contributions of Circumpolar Peoples. Bahá'ís have been an active force behind the non-governmental Inuit Circumpolar Conference which gives the Inuit one voice worldwide.[47] With the recent demise of the so-called "cold war" between the former Soviet Union and the West, the circumpolar Bahá'ís have been among the first to realize the benefit of strengthening international relations among all circumpolar peoples.[48]

        Circumpolar Bahá'ís have also provided several models of eliminating drug and substance abuse (e.g. "Bahá'ís in Recovery" programs) and prejudice,[49] and of encouraging a distinctive form of indigenous consultation through Native councils.

        More significantly, the contribution of the circumpolar peoples relates to the development of an indigenous Bahá'í administrative structure and of strengthening international relations. Increasingly, it is the circumpolar people who are arising to foster more effective means to promote the Bahá'í teaching work through the Bahá'í administrative framework which is now coming into play.

        In addition to national Bahá'í newsletters and bulletins that have served Bahá'ís in the circumpolar world, more specifically northern Bahá'í bulletins have included Star of the North (Yellowknife, Northwest Territories), Eskimo and Indian Bahá'í News (Whitehorse, Yukon), Round Robin (Ottawa, Ontario) The Polar Express (replaced by The Arctic Quarterly of the National Arctic Teaching Committee of Canada).

        Life in the circumpolar regions has inspired Bahá'í pioneers to write both informative and moving accounts. For example, Paul Adams' Arctic Island Hunter[50] provides a detailed glimpse of his life as a hunter in Spitzbergen, while many readers of Suzanne Schuurman's biography of her son, Tristan, are moved by her descriptions of life in the far north.


Adams, Paul E. (1961) Arctic Island Hunter. London. George Ronald.

Bahá'í International News Service. Haifa. Bahá'í World Centre.

Bahá'í News. No. 253 (March 1952): 6-7.

Bahá'í World, Volumes 13-15

Bond, Jameson (1992) "A Retrospective: The Development of the [Bahá'í] Faith in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland, 1948-1991." Mimeo. 8 Jan.

Correspondence from Jamesom J. Bond to W.C. van den Hoonaard, 30 Sept. 1986 and 27 Sept. 1987.

Correspondence from the National Arctic Teaching Committee of Canada to W.C. van den Hoonaard, March 1979.

Dutilly, Artheme (1945) Bibliography of Bibliographies on the Arc tic. Washington, D.C. Catholic U. of America.

National Arctic Teaching Committee of Canada (1974- ). The Arctic Quarterly: A Bulletin for the Bahá'í Circumpolar Community.

National Geographic Society (1983) "Peoples of the Arctic." Map and description.

Schuurman, Hubert (1992). "Arctic Pioneering." Mimeo 2 pp.

Schuurman, Suzanne (1987) Tristan. Oxford. George Ronald.

Shoghi Effendi (1958) Messages to the Bahá'í World, 1950-1957.         Wilmette, Ill. B.P.T.

Shoghi Effendi (1965) Citadel of Faith: Messages to America, 1947- 1957. Wilmette. B.P.T.

Shoghi Effendi (1965) Messages to Canada. Toronto. NSA of Canada.

Shoghi Effendi (1974) A Special Measure of Love: The Importance and Nature of the Teaching Work Among the Masses. Wilmette. B.P.T.

Shoghi Effendi (1976) High Endeavours: Messages to Alaska. Anchorage. NSA of Alaska.        


[1] "Peoples of the Arctic," Map and text produced by National Geographic, 1983.
[2] American Bahá'í, 20 Aug. 1993: 15.
[3] TDP, B.P.T. 1977 (map).
[4] MBW: 44
[5] High Endeavours: 50.
[6] MC: 61
[7] BW, 13: 449-57.
[8] SML= Special Measure of Love,
[9] BW, Vol. 9: 918. High Endeavours: vi.
[10] Bahá'í News, 7-8 Aug. 1925: 6.
[11] High Endeavours, vii.
[12] Messages to Canada: 74.
[13] Messages to Canada: 74.
[14] World Order (Old Series), 5, 10. Jan 1940: 398-400.
[15] BW, 15: 446.
[16] BW, 14: 303.
[17] BN, May 1955: 1.
[18] BN, April 1960: 2.
[19] BW, 15: 286.
[20] BW, 15: 483.
[21] BW, 15: 286.
[22] "Greenland" article for the Bahá'í Encyclopedia.
[23] Bond, 1992: 23; Messages to Canada: 73.
[24] Bond, 1992: 6.
[25] BW, 13: 453.
[26] Canadian Bahá'í News, March 1966: 7.
[27] High Endeavours: vii.
[28] Alaska Bahá'í News, Dec. 1989: 18.
[29] BW, 13: 449.
[30] "Alaska" article for Bahá'í Encyclopedia.
[31] Check: BW, 13: 461-02.
[32] UHJ Message to Conference.
[33] BINS, # 71: 5.
[34] The Arctic Quarterly, v. 3, n. 4 (Spring/Summer 1977).
[35] BINS, 24 Nov. 1968: 4.
[36] BINS, July 1984: 6.
[37] American Bahá'í, 8 Sept. 1992: 9.
[38] Ltr from H. Rafat, Trondheim, Norway, 9 April 1993, to Nancy Cameron, Fredericton.
[39] E.g. R. Khanum in 1993 (American Bahá'í, 16 Oct. 1993: 15).
[40] For example, the "Marion Jack Project" (American Bahá'í, 4 Nov. 1993: 13.)
[41] Alaska Bahá'í News, July 1989: 8-9.
[42] Alaska Bahá'í News, Dec. 1990: 19.
[43] Alaska Bahá'í News, Dec. 1989: 34.
[44] E.g. Alaskan Bahá'í News, Nov. 1988: 3.
[45] Such as Alaskans to Finland (Alaska Bahá'í News, Sept. 1990: 8).
[46] Alaska Bahá'í News, April 1990: 14; also Sept. 1989: 12-13.
[47] Alaska Bahá'í News, May 1989: 18; Globe and Mail, Sat. Oct. 10, 1992: D-1.; Jens Lyberth, a Bahá'í in Greenland, is one of its most active members.
[48] CBN, July 1974; e.g. Jokkmokk project with Bs from Norway, Sweden, and Finland.
[49] Alaska Bahá'í News, Aug. 1989: 9.
[50] This book represents a detailed account of Paul Adams' stay in Spitsbergen.

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