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Historical and sociological overview of the Canadian Bahá'í community.

Broad Contours of the Canadian Baha'i Community

by Will C. van den Hoonaard and Deborah K. van den Hoonaard

In retrospect, the Bahá'í community of Canada before 1948 seems to have had no direct impact on Canada's religious, social, or political landscape. Between September 1898 and April 1948, some 555 Bahá'ís lived in 84 locales across Canada. In 59 of these locales (70%), there were no immediate and visible consequences of the Bahá'í teaching activity. In another fifteen (18%) teaching efforts resulted in the establishment of a Bahá'í community, however weak and in ten others (12%) led to the formation of enduring and strong communities.

Four distinct periods guided the development of the Canadian Bahá'í community. The first period (1897-1912) featured members with diffused ideologies and mixed commitments. This period seems chaotic, with new converts having little or no sustained contact with one another. It was a group of expatriate Canadians in Chicago who first became attracted to the new religion, one family eventually establishing a temporary base in London, Ontario. These earliest adherents were, for the most part, vitally concerned with social reform and social change. Bahá'í beliefs were not yet clearly formulated as so few of the Bahá'í writings were then available. Coming into the new religion with an admixture of liberal Protestantism, New Thought, higher biblical criticism, Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, occultis, and spiritualism, converts held onto mere strands of Bahá'í beliefs. Such a medley of beliefs was not enough to sustain a body of committed believers organized around Bahá'í principles and discourse. Moreover, without much social contact, each of these early believers went their own way. We are not surprised at the fate of some of these early Bahá'ís, a fate which is so tragically portrayed by our scene of Honoré Jaxon, evicted from his apartment, sitting beside his papers, on a street in a large city (Woodman, 1993). While a few remained committed, most moved on to other causes, social or political. This period has been characterized as "sheer originating chaoticness," and a "bewildering rush of seemingly unrelated events," in which "the real hero (Bahá'u'lláh) remains absent" (Woodman, 1993: 2).

It was left to an American believer, May Ellis Maxwell, arriving from France in 1902, to become the driving force for this period. She articulated a clear sense of Bahá'í mission, directly inspired by `Abdu'l-Bahá. May Maxwell reached across various social strata and managed to gather together a small group of believers in Montreal. Their loyalty was, through her, crystallized in the person of `Abdu'l-Bahá, whose life and works assumed, in the hearts and minds of those early adherents, a Christ-like character and interpretation. In 1912, `Abdu'l-Bahá's sojourn in North America, including a nine-day visit to Montreal, extended the personal loyalty and private faith of these early believers to an emerging concept of Bahá'í community, however rudimentary.

The visit of the charismatic `Abdu'l-Bahá launched the second period (1912-1937) and affected community identity and changed styles of boundary maintenance and organization. The Bahá'ís in Canada began to increasingly envision the development of Bahá'í institutions and collective action as an integral part of being a Bahá'í. The legal incorporation of the initially joint National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States and Canada in 1927 created new and more stringent criteria for Bahá'í membership. Whereas previously the boundaries were porous, they became firmer. With the insistence of developing a Bahá'í administrative framework among what was initially a loose-knit gathering of individuals, there developed a perceptible difference between the older and newer members. The older members found the others overzealous in their application of Bahá'í administrative procedure.

Propagation began also to assume a different character. A quiet change had occurred among the Bahá'ís when May Maxwell and Marion Jack, another prominent Canadian believer, who also found the Bahá'í Faith in France, long travelling-teaching visits were undertaken across the breadth of Canada, as far north as the Yukon and as far east as Newfoundland. American and Persian Bahá'ís also responded to `Abdu'l-Bahá's call to spread the Bahá'í Faith through travels in Canada. During World War I `Abdu'l-Bahá had penned his Tablets of the Divine Plan (1977, rev. ed.), a series of 14 letters outlining the teaching tasks that lay ahead of the North American Bahá'í community to carry their new Faith around the globe. Significantly, a number of Bahá'ís, especially those of Jewish heritage, seized upon the vision of Shoghi Effendi, Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith since 1921, that the fundamental aim of the religion of Bahá'u'lláh was to transform society in terms of an emerging world order.[1] With this vision, the Bahá'í teaching work gained momentum, as new topics and ideas (not based merely on a Christian, Theosophical or Rosicrucian orientation towards the Bahá'í teachings) became the vehicles for attracting new believers from a wider variety of strata.

The great transformation of the Bahá'í community in Canada occurred during the third period (1937-1941). When Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, considered the Bahá'í administrative framework sufficiently ready, he called upon the North American Bahá'í community to organize a systematic teaching campaign (through the Seven-Year Plan, 1937-1944) and establish new Spiritual Assemblies across the continent. Whereas previously the Bahá'í teaching work had been left in the hands of a few believers, the new directives specifically involved Bahá'í administrative councils (the Spiritual Assemblies). In Canada, a Spiritual Assembly was to be formed in at least one city in each province by 1944. The task was immense, for there were only ninety Bahá'ís in the whole country--barely the number required to establish even the minimum number of nine nine-member Spiritual Assemblies.

This period saw an efflorescence of approaches in spreading the Bahá'í Faith which were well suited to the cultural milieu of the Bahá'ís whose previous religion was mainly Protestant: the so-called "fireside" gatherings in one's home, public meetings, systematic teaching campaigns, and both homefront and long-distance pioneering. While Shoghi Effendi encouraged the use of all of these methods of spreading the Bahá'í Faith, in North America and even internationally, they found a positive response in the Canadian Bahá'í community.

Once established, a Bahá'í community would either experience growth, little growth, or even decline. The elements which contributed to growth consisted of the community's ability to maintain a diverse approach in propagating the newly established religion and to foster linkages with the wider society. The main characteristic of low- or no-growth communities were too much reliance on other (nearby) communities for their teaching work and transient pioneers. Gender imbalance was also higher in these latter communities than in the former, successful ones.

The fourth period (1942-1948) witnessed the emergence of a Bahá'í national identity in Canada. By way of external influence, World War II helped create this identity among the Bahá'ís through the forced necessity of establishing a Canadian Bahá'í fund and articulating the Bahá'í position towards non involvement in politics in general and in World War II, in particular. Due to national currency exchange regulations, the Bahá'ís of Canada were, moreover, compelled to hold their own Bahá'í schools and conferences and establish their own fund.

The travelling-teacher campaigns, as did Bahá'í schools and conferences, begun in the third period, were maintained with considerable vigour in the fourth and final period. The teaching campaigns and the summer schools had, however, an intrinsic value beyond the fact that they propagated the Bahá'í Faith: they educated a body of new believers across Canada about the Bahá'í systems of beliefs and administration. For the first time, too, Bahá'ís were in touch on a national scale with their most active organizers and teachers. The process of developing travelling teaching and schools and conferences allowed Bahá'ís to experience, first hand, the array of personal abilities that existed in the Canadian Bahá'í national community. The period culminated in 1948 with the formation of Canada's own national governing council, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Canada.

The Social Basis of the Canadian Bahá'í Community

The episodic changes in the Canadian Bahá'í community hinged on several social factors, of which religious outlook, the position of women, class and occupations, and ethnicity played a vital role. While Theosophy, Methodism, and Rosicrucianism constituted the source religious affiliations of many of the very early Bahá'ís, it is clear that liberal Protestantism was the principal anvil upon which the Bahá'í community was forged. 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 home and public meetings allowed the Bahá'í community to attract those who favoured both home life and a neutral setting to teach and hear about the new religion.

The role of women was another social factor that entered into the dynamics of Bahá'í community organization and expansion. The Bahá'í Faith consistently attracted a large proportion of women, namely 70%. Whereas in the earlier periods, the Bahá'í Faith was a magnet for maternal suffragettes and women social reformers, it increasingly began to attract single, urban women who had found an occupational niche in the lower-middle class. This feature, given the social context of the time, meant that the Bahá'í Faith primarily reached other single women, and that the strategy of holding public meetings, rather than home 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, Bahá'í women became the primary means by which the Bahá'í Faith spread across Canada.

A third element, class and occupation, significantly contributed to the shifting social composition of the Bahá'í community. While initially the community attracted members of the upper class, it successively moved to attract people of the managerial class and, eventually, those from lower-middle class occupations. This shift had a bearing on the ability of the Bahá'í community to propagate the Bahá'í Faith. The occupational skills of the lower-middle class gave them freedom to move around the country and settle in those locales where the need for new Bahá'ís was the greatest. The Bahá'í community also seemed to have, in particular, attracted the "creative" class, consisting of artists and the like.

It is important to remember that the dominant Protestant flavour of Bahá'í membership still prevailed, regardless of shifting class membership. As a consequence, there were few cultural differences in the changing Bahá'í membership. The approach taken by early upper-class members was no different from that taken by later lower-middle-class members, for what dominated the Bahá'í community was the Protestant temperament of propagation and community: individualistic, organizationally focused, and with an emphasis on teaching the so-called twelve social principles of the Bahá'í Faith (rather than, let us say, the station of Bahá'u'lláh).

The ethnic composition of Bahá'í membership, the fourth social factor, was deeply intertwined with the other factors of religious outlook, gender, and class. Bahá'í membership retained its British basis. Under these circumstances, the Bahá'í community had a "Protestant accent" which made it more difficult for members of other ethnic groups to join in. Catholic and French-Canadian 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 unfamiliar landscape. Such a social landscape lacked familiar landmarks to guide the behaviour and thought of Bahá'ís of non-mainstream Protestant background.

As a religion of the home and of public meetings, the Bahá'í community must have also offered a new and challengding experience for its few Black members. For the early Bahá'ís the new religion did not, as yet, wrap itself completely around the social self. The Bahá'ís had limited social knowledge of each other, for along with Bahá'í membership they maintained extensive ties to other circles, often keeping them deliberately separate from the Bahá'í community. Blacks entering into a Bahá'í dimension would have been struck by the absence of the religious social self. Instead of finding a social community that engaged all social aspects of the individual, a Black man or woman found an individualistic community. The effect of the absence of familiar landmarks was heightened by the enormous courage it must have taken for Blacks to leave their social community and step into a different one.

The Jewish element in Bahá'í life in Canada was quite significant. Starting as early as 1921, Bahá'ís of Jewish heritage were among the first to respond with clarity and understanding to Shoghi Effendi's vision of the Faith of Bahá'u'lláh as one that encompasses a world order. The Jewish contribution transformed a community that was inner-directed to one that opened up to the world. The vigour and erudition of those of Jewish descent resulted in an entirely new orientation of the Bahá'í teaching work, and in consistent contributions to the Bahá'í community in terms of literature.[2]


[1] The Promise of World Peace, a statement issued by the Universal House of Justice (1986), reinforced this vision of world order and world peace as one of the "fundamental objectives of the Bahá'í Faith."

[2] Deborah van den Hoonaard is currently (1994) collecting materials for a study on the Jewish experience in the Bahá'í community.

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