The Bahá'ís of America: The Growth of a Religious Movement by Mike McMullen:
Review of: The Bahá'ís of America: The Growth of a Religious Movement.
New York University Press, 2015
This book analyses the last 50 years of the development of the United States Bahá'í community. After an introductory chapter outlining briefly something of the history, administrative structure and teachings of the Bahá'í Faith, the second chapter gives a detailed analysis of the general messages of the Universal House of Justice, the world governing body of the Bahá'í community, guiding the development of the community in a series of successive plans over the period 1963-2013. This guidance has changed from giving very specific goals for the expansion and development of the community in the early years of this period to giving much more general guidance and devolving the task of setting specific goals to the national elected councils, and even in recent years to the Bahá'ís at the local level, as these have developed the capacity to take on this responsibility. The other change has been the shift in emphasis from numerical and geographical expansion to the development of Bahá'í community life. This chapter is somewhat heaving going to read through but is a useful reference sources outlining 50 years of these messages.
The rest of the book consists of three chapters dividing the 50 years covered by the book into three periods of American Bahá'í history. During the first period (1963-1979), the emphasis was on numerical growth and geographical expansion. The goals for the plans of this period were met and exceeded, especially with the influx of a large number of Afro-Americans in South Carolina. This very success, however, caused one of the major problems of the next period (1979-1996). Coping with the instruction of the new converts and incorporating them into the community proved to be a great strain for a religion that has no clergy and there was little overall growth for a time. The outbreak of a severe persecution of the Bahá'ís in Iran and the consequent arrival of large numbers of refugees with a different culture and outlook created additional problems. These challenges gave rise to various solutions but it was not until the third period of this study (1996-2013) that an effective framework was devised. A programme of participatory study classes was implemented that imparted not just knowledge but also skills for taking responsibility for various aspects of community life (children's classes, youth empowerment programmes, devotional meetings, running study classes, etc.), the aim being to have every member of the community able to take on one or more of these tasks. In addition a framework of local "Town Hall"-style meetings was developed at which community affairs are consulted upon and planning decisions made. This new ethos and style of community activity was only just being embedded and starting to show positive results by the end of the period under survey.
This book is a welcome addition to the literature on the Bahá'í Faith because it focuses on this recent period when the Bahá'í community worldwide has undergone far-reaching changes, which have not thus far been much noted in the academic literature. The book would be suitable for both the general reader and the specialist scholar. McMullen concludes the book with a discussion of the wider implications of this study for the subject of race and religion (the Bahá'í community is the most racially diverse religious community in the United States). The main weakness of the book lies in the fact that, based as it is on extensive research in the archives of the Bahá'í institutions, the story is largely told from the viewpoint of those institutions. Except for occasional glimpses gleaned from reports, one does not get a feel for the experiences of the average American Bahá'ís coping with the rapid changes of this period.