Review of: Review of Religion and Relevance: The Baha’is in Britain 1899–1930,
Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 2014
Review published in: Religion
47:1, 2017, pp. 111-114
Despite its presence in the United Kingdom for almost 120 years, the Baha’i Faith in Britain has received almost no academic attention. Lil Osborn’s book is therefore important for making a start on this area of research. But it is also important for introducing a new framework to religious studies, that of Sperber and Wilson’s Theory of Relevance. As discussed in her introduction, Osborn is not interested in answering the question ‘why’ the individuals studied in her book became Baha’is but rather ‘how’. In examining this question, Osborn finds that those who became Baha’is came across the Baha’i Faith because of particular networks of which they were part. And this is where the Theory of Relevance comes in. Briefly, this theory states that almost every communication from one person to another comes with a guarantee of relevance – the communication comes with sufficient contextual clues that enable the recipient to grasp the message without any difficulty. Other things being equal, the greater the contextual effect (the interaction between the information being communicated and the common assumptions between the two people communicating), the greater the relevance of the communication will be because it can then be processed by the recipient with minimal effort. The formal presentation by Sperber and Wilson of this concept, which most people will understand intuitively anyway, enables it to be used as a theoretical construct in cognitive and communication theory and, in this case, as a theoretical framework for Osborn’s analysis of how people became Baha’is in Britain in the period 1899–1930.
Osborn’s two main findings are, first, that being a Baha’i in the timeframe examined in this book was very different from being a Baha’i today. At that time, most of those who became Baha’is did not think they were joining a new religion, but rather it was an addition to their existing religious identity. At that time people joined the Baha’i Movement, rather than today when they join the Baha’i Faith. Most Baha’is remained within their existing religious communities, but added the Baha’i Movement as an expression of religious orientation rather than a new religious identity, thus the Baha’i Movement was what Osborn calls a ‘supplementary religious movement’. Briefly, this orientation involved what were very liberal and progressive views: an openness to other religions; the social advancement of women; a commitment to harmony among the races and religions of the world; and a working towards peace among the nations of the world.
Osborn’s second main finding is that those who called themselves Baha’is in the early 20th century were members of and, indeed, came across the Baha’i Movement as a result of their membership in a number of networks, both formal and informal, which Osborn identifies clearly in her book. The first of these was a liberal Anglican Christian network – involving such figures as Rev. Reginald Campbell of the City Temple and Rev. Basil Wilberforce, Archdeacon of Westminister, who preached at St. John’s Church, Smith Square – which found its main outlet in the Christian Commonwealth newspaper. This newspaper published many articles about the Baha’i Movement, and these two clergymen gave the Baha’i leader ‘Abdu’l-Baha (the son of Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith) their pulpits from which to address their congregations when he came to England in 1911. Those associated with this network who came to identify themselves as Baha’is included Thomas Cheyne, Oriel Professor of the Interpretation of Scripture at Oxford, and Lady Sara Blomfield, who became one of the most active Baha’is in Britain. Closely associated with this network and also with the Christian Commonwealth was a liberal Unitarian network, one of whose leading figures was Prof. John Estlin Carpenter, Principal of Manchester College, Oxford, at whose invitation ‘Abdu’l-Baha visited Oxford.
Another network that came to interact with the Baha’i Movement was what Osborn calls the Social Reconstruction-Socialism-Feminism Network, including the Pankhurst sisters and Charlotte Despard. A number of people from this network also came to identify themselves as Baha’is, including Elizabeth Herrick, who served a prison sentence for suffragette activities, and Mary Blomfield, who used her access to court circles to make a direct plea to the king to stop the force-feeding of suffragette hunger strikers.
Finally, Osborn describes a metaphysical, esoteric network, which included theosophy (‘Abdu’l-Baha spoke at several theosophical society gatherings in Britain), spiritualism and the esotericism of such individuals as Dion Fortune. Members of this network who identified themselves as Baha’is included Alice Buckton and Wellesley Tudor Pole, who both played an important role in the early development of Glastonbury as a centre for British (Celtic) esotericism. Osborn calls this the Celtic Network.
There were a number of other smaller sub-networks. For example, Arthur Cuthbert wrote extensively about the Baha’i Movement in the International Psychic Gazette but does not seem to have been connected to the Celtic Network despite their mutual interest in spiritualism and psychic phenomena. A number of writers about the Middle East such as Ethel Stephana Stevens (later Lady Drower), Francis Skrine and Maud Holbach, whom Osborn calls the Orientalist Network, became connected to the Baha’i Movement, finding the Baha’i teachings about the unity of East and West attractive. These networks overlapped and interacted at many points. For example, figures such as Reginald Campbell and Basil Wilberforce crop up in more than one of them, while several among the Baha’is, such as Lady Blomfield and William Tudor Pole, were active across more than one network. The function of these networks was that of providing a guarantee of relevance. If one person in a network became interested in the Baha’i teachings and told another person in that network about it, this imparting of information came with a guarantee of relevance because of their shared framework of thought within their network.
Each of these networks found that different aspects or teachings of the Baha’i Movement provided relevance for them. For the first network it was the Christ-like qualities of `Abdu’l-Baha and the comparisons to be drawn between the life of the Bab (the forerunner of Baha’u’llah) and that of Christ; for the second network, the social teachings of the Baha’i Faith (especially the social advancement of women); for the third, it was viewing `Abdu’l-Baha as a spiritual guide and interpreting his teaching as reinforcing their own views on the Divine Feminine and their activities in creating spiritual focus points at different locations. The Baha’i teachings were at this time vague enough that each individual could find elements that matched their own interests and thus enriched the relevance of the Baha’i Movement for them.
After people entered the Baha’i Movement as a result of these network contacts, Osborn describes how they became part of one of three Baha’i networks. The first of these was what Osborn calls the Central Network, based in London. The leading members of this network were a number of upper- and upper-middle-class women, mainly from the liberal Anglican network. The second network was the Celtic (Mysticism) Network, based in the West of England and focused on the Tudor Pole family and Alice Buckton. The third network was a working-class socialist Northern Network based in Manchester, which was directed towards the Baha’i social teachings.
In Chapter three, Osborn gives an analysis of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s talks when he visited Britain in 1911 and again in 1912–1913. She analyses the parts that the different networks played in arranging and hosting each of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s private and public meetings. She also demonstrates that ‘Abdu’l-Baha developed presentations that he made to general audiences consisting of a general theological statement followed by a listing of social teachings, while to specific audiences, such as the theosophists, he tailored his presentation to the specific interests of his audience, thus maximising the relevance of his words.
While the personality of ‘Abdu’l-Baha had the effect of drawing together the different Baha’i networks in Britain and creating great public interest in the Baha’i teachings, the greater clarity about these teachings meant a disambiguation and loss of relevance for some who had maintained a connection with the Baha’i group through a personal interpretation of the teachings. This process of disambiguation continued in the following years. The messages from ‘Abdu’l-Baha increasingly stressed that the Baha’is should actively spread the message to others and also increasingly focused on the Baha’i social teachings as the message to be spread. Whereas previously, the vague Baha’i teachings had elements that created relevance for a wide range of people, the more sharply defined Baha’i teachings lost relevance for some networks. For example, the Baha’i Movement lost relevance for those interested in mysticism and the occult (the Celtic Network) and they began to drift away from the Baha’i community. On the other hand, the new orientation towards the Baha’i social teachings found that whereas these had been radical before the First World War, afterwards they were competing with the rising Labour Party, which articulated them more forcefully – the Baha’is having been advised against direct political action by ‘Abdu’l-Baha. Also, some of the causes for which the Baha’is had striven were won, for example women’s suffrage in 1921, and thus ceased to be a context for contact with the Baha’i community. Other Baha’i teachings such as international brotherhood and the uniting of East and West became unpopular during and after the First World War. As a result, the Baha’i community itself was now no longer driven and organized so much around separate networks of relevance but became more unified, being distinguished only through separate geographical locations.
‘Abdu’l-Baha died in 1921 and his grandson, Shoghi Effendi, succeeded him as Guardian of the Baha’i Faith. The period from this point to 1930, the point at which this book’s coverage ends, was one in which ‘the Baha’i Movement, which had operated as a supplementary religious movement, requiring neither conversion nor the rejection of previously held beliefs and affiliation, which was based initially upon the enrichment of vague and often ambiguous teachings, declines and is ultimately superceded by the Baha’i Faith, based upon a clear programme with a unique administrative structure and ultimately requiring the severance of … religious and other affiliations’ (p. 223). The main activity of this period, the establishment of an administrative framework for the world Baha’i community consisting of elected local and national councils called Spiritual Assemblies, was one that was purely internal and relevant to no-one except the Baha’is themselves and marks the end of relevance, as defined by Sperber and Wilson, as a useful framework for analysing the Baha’i community. The Baha’i Faith which arose in the 1930s had little in common with the previous Baha’i Movement, either in its membership, its organisation, the self-perception of its adherents, or the way it presented the Baha’i teachings. Osborn ends her book with a look at the writings of some Christian missionaries who attacked the Baha’i Movement precisely because of its relevance, which they considered to be hypocrisy.
My main criticism of the book is that it lacks an index, an inexplicable omission made worse by the fact that the structure of the book means that some individuals reappear in successive chapters and without an index it is difficult to keep track of them. In a few places, the editing of the book is poor and there are evidently missing words (see the middle of p. 209 for example).
However, these do not detract significantly from what is an excellent first foray into the history of the Baha’i Faith in Britain for which Lil Osborn is to be congratulated.