Review of: Shoghi Effendi through the Pilgrim’s Eye – Vol. 1: Building the Administrative Order, 1922–1952
Oxford, UK: George Ronald (2015)
Review published in: Journal of Bahá'í Studies
There has always been a tension between the enthusiasm versus the veracity of notes written by Haifa-bound pilgrims who shared their memories of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá or Shoghi Effendi. As Shoghi Effendi writes in The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh:
It was chiefly in view of the misleading nature of the reports of the informal conversations of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá with visiting pilgrims, that I have insistently urged the believers of the West to regard such statements as merely personal impressions of the sayings of their Master, and to quote and consider as authentic only such translations as are based upon the authenticated text of His recorded utterances in the original tongue. (5)
Clearly, no matter who is doing the remembering, notes, diaries, and letters written by individual Bahá’ís about their understanding of what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá or Shoghi Effendi might have said are not in any way authoritative. For example, Mary Maxwell compiled notes based on conversations she had with Shoghi Effendi prior to their marriage in 1937. These were shared with believers with the permission of the National Spiritual Assembly, but although they are interesting and useful, even these notes are not authoritative.
However, there is no denying that as we move deeper into the Formative Age of the Bahá’í Dispensation, and as a quotation’s authenticity may be confirmed with a few clicks, the enthusiasm of pilgrims’ notes is a wonderful way to glimpse the zeitgeist of different times in Bahá’í history. While not revealing authoritative statements about Bahá’í teachings or doctrine, they provide a window into the attitudes, preoccupations, demographics, and cultural patterns of the Bahá’í community at specific points in time, as shown particularly through intimate responses and reactions to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi, and other members of the Holy Family.
In the first volume of Shoghi Effendi through the Pilgrim’s Eye, Earl Redman has curated pilgrims’ notes written between 1922 and 1952, providing readers with a captivating collection of impressions from a time of great transition in the Bahá’í Faith from its Heroic Age to its Formative Age. As he comments in the preface, the difference between pilgrims’ notes written during ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s lifetime and those written during the lifetime of Shoghi Effendi shows the full impact of the change of focus of a Bahá’í community shifting from the adoration of a spiritual “father figure” toward the building of a world administrative order alongside their “true brother” (x).
Redman is very careful to clarify that this collection of pilgrims’ notes, limited to those written in or translated into English, is not authoritative. It is, however, enlightening in numerous ways.
By reproducing them as quotations, Redman conveys the emotional reality of each individual’s interactions with the Guardian. The enthusiastic punctuation, “grammatical stumbles,” and creative spellings add to our understanding of the individuality of every writer and offer insight into the effect Shoghi Effendi had on those who met him (xv).
Redman’s commentaries also help draw out the perceptions that formed around the Guardian. His writing is engaging, informal, and immediate. His style is inclusive and lets the reader revel in the diversity represented by these early, mostly Western, believers whose personalities and character shine through their words. Within the first twenty pages of Redman’s book, one encounters the wildly different descriptive styles of wonderful figures in Bahá’í history ranging from John Bosch, Catharine Nourse (then seventeen years old), Saichiro Fujita, and Lady Blomfield.
While Shoghi Effendi through the Pilgrim’s Eye is arranged chronologically, an inviting aspect of the book is that it is possible to open it to any page and become immersed in the world of the Guardian.
Redman’s book is full of gems—moments and details that themselves could become books, research topics, or the starting points for blog posts. There must be photographers who would love the detailed description of the types of cameras Effie Baker took with her when Shoghi Effendi sent her on a mission to photograph historical Bábí sites in Iran. The description of her “No. 1A Kodak with a wide angle lens perfect for landscapes” and her second camera that “used half-sized glass plates as film and were able to focus very close to an object” might mystify those born in the digital era, but the details of Shoghi Effendi’s prescient guidance is fascinating (180).
If this book is read in a linear manner, sometimes the lists of dates and names become lengthy and the narrative flow is stilted. Most of the chapters are only titled with the year or few years they cover. Yet each name mentioned is often a person worthy of his or her own biography, and Redman helps the reader imagine those individuals, with their vastly differing personalities and opinions, all together at the same time, all with the purpose of making a pilgrimage to Haifa and meeting with the Guardian.
To give one example, the chapter titled “1925” is full of information that places disparate events, many of which Bahá’ís might be knowledgeable about, in a time and place together. The chapter begins with Shoghi Effendi’s advice to Jean Stannard that she move to Geneva (where she established the International Bahá’í Bureau). Shortly thereafter, Martha Root joined her, and they hosted a World Esperanto Congress, at which Lidia Zamenhof first learned of the Bahá’í Faith. This brief mention of Miss Zamenhof, who later died in a Nazi concentration camp, tempts the reader to reference not only her biography, but also the more recent biography of Hermann Grossmann that vividly recalls the German Bahá’í community’s struggle to save lives as well as books and archives during the Holocaust.
This chapter continues with notes on visits by Baker, Root, Dhikr’u’llah Khadem, and others. The reader is also reminded that during this year, Shoghi Effendi would have been waiting for Egypt’s reaction to the Muslim Ecclesiastical Court’s decision that the Bahá’í religion was a new religion independent of Islam. Redman explains that while Shoghi Effendi was waiting on this news, the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada was officially formed. He acknowledges that this accomplishment took much guidance from the Guardian and the results “weren’t quite as Shoghi Effendi might have preferred” (108).
The same chapter concludes with the almost simultaneous passing of Dr. John Esslemont and the arrival of Hasan Balyuzi in Haifa as a young seventeen-year-old. Redman’s inclusion of all this information in one single chapter emphasizes the intensity of those days and the complexities faced by Shoghi Effendi.
The volume ends in 1952, just as Shoghi Effendi announces the beginning of the Ten Year Crusade. Thankfully, Redman has continued diligently with his work and his next book is now available: Shoghi Effendi through the Pilgrim’s Eye: The Ten Year Crusade, 1953–1963.
Nakhjavani, Violette. The Maxwells of Montreal: Middle Years 1923–1939, Late Years 1937–1952. Vol. 2, George Ronald, 2012.
Redman, Earl. Shoghi Effendi through the Pilgrim’s Eye: Building the Administrative Order, 1922–1952. Vol. 1, George Ronald, 2015.
Shoghi Effendi. The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. 2nd ed., Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1969.
 A detailed discussion of both positive and negative community reactions to these notes, as well as correspondence between Maxwell family members, can be found in pages 315–25 of Violette Nakhjavani’s The Maxwells of Montreal: Middle Years 1923–1937, Late Years 1937–1952. This discussion elucidates issues surrounding the use of pilgrims’ notes.
Catherine Nash completed her law degree at the University of Victoria and focuses on advocacy work for vulnerable children and youth.