American Bahá’í Community
United States of America. Pop. 249,600,000 (1990 census). Area 9,380,000 sq. km. (3,620,000 sq. mi.) Geographically, the United States includes much of the central part of North America; Alaska (q.v.?), in the northwestern corner of North America; the islands of Hawaii (q.v.?) in the center of the Pacific Ocean; the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (q.v.?), a Spanish‑speaking island located in the eastern Caribbean Sea; the American Virgin Islands, next to Puerto Rico; Guam, a Pacific island fifteen hundred miles east of the Philippines; the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, north of Guam; American Samoa, in the south‑central Pacific; and various other minor islands in the Caribbean and Pacific. In terms of Bahá’í jurisdiction, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States has jurisdiction over the contiguous forty‑eight states only. Separate national spiritual assemblies exist for Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. Guam and the Northern Marianas are governed by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the Marianas Islands (q.v.?); American Samoa and the independent nation of Western Samoa are under the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Samoa (q.v.?); and the American Virgin Islands, with the British Virgin Islands, are under the jurisdiction of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the Virgin Islands (q.v.?). The United States of America is the fourth largest country in the world, in terms of area; fourth in population; and first in terms of gross national product.
Religious History. When English settlement of North America began in the early seventeenth century the land was already filled with natives; their ancestors had resided there for at least twenty-five thousand years. Spanish and French explorers had already explored much of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and had already planted Catholic missions on North American soil. The English were mostly Protestant, though from a wide range of sects. Three different areas of the Atlantic seaboard were colonized by the English, and the religious pattern of each was distinct.
The southern colonies were settled first, starting in 1609. Religiously, officially they were Anglican, but the Church of England could find few priests willing to endure the harsh living conditions prevailing in America, hence the population remained largely unchurched for several generations. In the absence of clergy, the local laity often played a central role in organizing and running local churches. Consequently, in the eighteenth century denominations that emphasized a local congregational form of church government spread rapidly.
New England was settled between 1630 and 1640 largely as a result of persecution of the Puritans in England; they sailed to New England in the tens of thousands, where they sought to establish "holy commonwealths." They sought to demonstrate the truth of their religious convictions through the creation of peaceful, prosperous, and orderly societies. For much of the seventeenth century one had to be a member of the established Puritan church in order to vote in Massachusetts and Connecticut; religious dissenters were exiled to Rhode Island, which was established as a haven for them; and between 1659 and 1661 four Quaker missionaries, who came to Massachusetts to establish their sect, were hanged for spreading heresy. From Puritanism came the Congregational and Baptist churches, and the latter spread rapidly in the south.
The middle colonies were settled between 1626 and 1682 by Dutch Calvinists, English Catholics and Quakers, Swedish Lutherans, and various small German Protestant sects, such as the Mennonites and Amish. Religious diversity was the watchword of the middle colonies from the beginning, and their religious tolerance became an important pattern later followed by the rest of the country.
In 1789 the new United States of America was ninety percent Protestant. Most of the rest were Catholic; there were a few thousand Jews; African religions and Islam still existed among the slaves, but many had been Christianized; and the native Americans largely adhered to their traditional religious beliefs. While some of the Protestants were from smaller sects at the ends of the Protestant spectrum of belief, most were Calvinist in orientation. Among the Calvinist churches were the Congregationalists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Dutch and German Reformed churches, and some Episcopalians (who represented the continuation of the pre-revolutionary Church of England). Though not Calvinist, the Methodist church, which started as a lay movement within the Church of England, was also closely allied to the other churches, cooperated with them, and grew on the frontier faster than the others.
These seven churches jointly constituted the evangelical mainstream of American religion and provided American culture with its dominant religious ethos in the nineteenth century. Revivals became the principal mechanism for assimilating the generally Protestant population into these churches; it was especially powerful on the frontier. Evangelical churches cooperated closely and established joint organizations to distribute Bibles; to missionize slaves, Indians, and foreigners; to establish Sunday schools; and to fight such social ills as Sabbath‑breaking, prostitution, alcohol consumption, poor working conditions, child labor, poverty, and slavery.
After the Civil War three developments undermined the broad religious consensus of the evangelicals. The developing science of biblical criticism revealed that the Bible was not simply a record of real historical events and the actual words of Jesus and Moses, but was a subjective and often historically inaccurate interpretation of people and events. The new sciences of geology and biology severely undermined the assumption that God had created the earth, its life forms, and humanity six thousand years earlier; Darwin’s theory of evolution proved a particularly serious threat. Finally, comparative religion and the rapid spread of international systems for communication and transportation brought more contact with nonwestern religions than ever before, and greatly weakened the assumption that Christianity was superior. As a result, evangelical Protestants gradually split into two camps: liberals, who accepted higher biblical criticism, evolutionary theory, comparative religious study; and conservatives, who rejected them. The latter evolved into Fundamentalists in the 1920s, and in the 1950s produced a more moderate group who reclaimed the old word "evangelical" for themselves. Conservative Protestantism began to grow rapidly in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s.
Liberal Protestantism continued to dominate the Congregational, northern Baptist, northern Presbyterian, Methodist, and some reformed churches. Their concern for social reform led to the social gospel movement of roughly 1900‑1920. This was followed by Neo-orthodoxy, a movement that reemphasized basic Protestant truths, from 1926 to the 1950s. The 1960s saw the Death of God movement, Black Theology, and then the rise of Liberation Theology and Feminist Theology. The 1980s and 1990s saw a shift of focus to such issues as the ordination of women and homosexuals to the ministry, the churches’ understanding of marriage and the proper expression of human sexuality, and concern about abortion, suicide, AIDS, and euthanasia.
The nineteenth and twentieth centuries also saw the steady broadening of American pluralism. Evangelical Protestantism itself produced many nonevangelical movements, among them Unitarianism, a liberal church that soon ceased to see itself as explicitly Christian; Mormonism, the faith that result when Joseph Smith claimed to find gold plates containing an ancient record of Jesus’s revelation in the Americas, which he translated; and Christian Science, the result of a revelation claimed by Mary Baker Eddy. Spiritualism arose as a result of interest in communication with the dead, and Theosophy was created from Hindu, Buddhist, spiritualist, and other ideas.
The incorporation of the Spanish lands into the United States in the mid nineteenth century, and the immigration of millions of Irish and Germans, later of Poles and Italians, and most recently of Latin Americans, has increased the number of Catholics to over a third of the population of the United States. The late nineteenth century witnessed a flood of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. The last decade of the nineteenth century and the opening decades of the twentieth brought Orthodox Christian, Muslim, and Bahá’í immigrants from the Eastern Mediterranean. Chinese and later Japanese immigration brought Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shintoism to the Pacific Coast as early as the 1880s. Vedanta, a form of Hinduism, became popular among some well-to-do Protestants in the 1890s. Since World War Two, immigration from the Indian subcontinent has brought other forms of Hinduism, Jainism, and Zoroastrianism to the United States. As the twentieth century draws to a close the Protestant dominance of American culture has largely been superceded by a secular culture that is pluralistic, embracing representatives of nearly every religion in the world.
Bahá’í History: 1892‑1921. The United States was the first country in the European cultural world to have a Bahá’í community. The Bahá’í Faith was introduced to the United States in 1892, when Anton Haddad and Ibrahim Kheiralla, two Bahá’ís of Christian background from what today is Lebanon, arrived in New York to find work. Haddad soon left; by early 1894 Kheiralla had learned English and began to teach his understanding of the Bahá’í religion to Americans. Lacking books of Bahá’í scripture, and intrigued by biblical prophecy, spiritual healing, Middle Eastern magic, and American folk Protestantism, Kheiralla forged his own unique form of Bahá’í belief and taught it to a growing number of Americans. By 1899 fifteen hundred Americans had been attracted to the new faith. Bahá’í communities of more than two hundred members existed in Chicago; New York; and Kenosha, Wisconsin. Cincinnati, northern New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Racine, Wisconsin, had communities of ten to fifty members.
Particularly attracted to the Faith were middle and lower middle class Americans of British, German, and Scandinavian heritage. Most were of evangelical Protestant background; some had been active in churches when they converted, though most were inactive or unchurched, and a substantial fraction had become interested in alternative religious expressions such as Swedenborgianism, Christian Science, Theosophy, Vedanta, Buddhism, and New Thought before becoming Bahá’ís. Others had been Masons or members of other secret societies, or had been interested in philosophies focused on health and healing.
In late 1898 Ibrahim Kheiralla and a group of American Bahá’ís went on pilgrimage, initiating the community’s formal contact with `Abdu’l‑Bahá [q.v.], who had become head of the Bahá’í Faith on the death of Bahá’u’lláh in 1892. The American Bahá’ís discovered, much to their shock, that Kheiralla had been teaching them a mixture of Bahá’í and other ideas, and that many of his innovations contradicted statements in the Bahá’í scriptures. When Kheiralla and the others returned to North America a crisis resulted, Kheiralla insisting that his teachings were correct and orthodox Bahá’í belief, the others denying his claim and asserting that Bahá’ís should now turn to `Abdu’l‑Bahá for guidance, not to Kheiralla. In 1900 Kheiralla attempted to start his own independent Bahá’í sect, an effort that ultimately attracted no more than one or two hundred of the American Bahá’ís and which endured about a half century before disappearing. Half or more of the American Bahá’ís became disaffected from their new religion as a result of the crisis. In 1900 `Abdu’l‑Bahá sent Bahá’í teachers from the Middle East–`Abdu’l-Karím-i-ihrání, ájí assan-i-Khurásání, Mírzá Asadu’lláh, and Mírzá Abu’l-Fal (q. v.)–to provide the remnant with accurate knowledge of the Bahá’í teachings.
The next twelve years saw a series of phases in which the American Bahá’í community underwent steady development. The first phase (1900‑04) was a phase of consolidation. The Middle Eastern teachers traveled to the various communities, deepening them and helping them to organize themselves. Chicago, New York, Kenosha, and northern New Jersey all elected consultative bodies, forerunners of modern spiritual assemblies. The next phase (1904‑08) saw a burst of translations of the writings of Bahá’u’lláh and `Abdu’l‑Bahá, providing the American Bahá’ís with a substantial body of Bahá’í scripture in English. Consultative bodies formed in Washington, D.C.; Boston; Spokane; and briefly in Oakland, Cal. The third phase (1909‑11) was one of the establishment of national organization and a focusing of energy on several national projects: construction of the Bahá’í Temple; establishment of a national coordinating body, the Bahai Temple Unity; founding of Star of the West, the first successful national Bahá’í periodical; and creation of the Persian‑American Educational Society, a social and economic development project through which the American Bahá’ís provided their Persian brethren with educational, medical, and technical assistance.
In 1912 `Abdu’l‑Bahá visited the United States and Canada for eight months, a trip that had an enormous impact on the Bahá’ís. Most were too poor to afford the lengthy and still arduous trip to Palestine, and thus His visit was the only chance many had to see their Master. They also brought their friends and contacts to meet `Abdu’l‑Bahá and hear His talks, producing a modest upswing in the enrollment of new members. His talks were regularly published in Star of the West and were eventually compiled into a volume, thereby bringing them to an even wider audience. Hundreds of newspaper articles about `Abdu’l‑Bahá and His Faith were published, resulting in widespread publicity for the Bahá’í religion for the first time.
Consolidation of the Bahá’í community was perhaps the most important result of `Abdu’l‑Bahá’s visit. `Abdu’l‑Bahá had both the Chicago and New York Bahá’í consultative bodies reorganized. His talks brought deeper knowledge of the Bahá’í teachings to some, but strengthened the convictions of others that the Bahá’í ideals would be widely disseminated only if the Bahá’í community mixed more with others and did not view the Bahá’í Faith as an independent religion. Many found obedience to `Abdu’l‑Bahá a difficult membership requirement to follow. It is probably not a coincidence that during His visit to America `Abdu’l‑Bahá had to expell three individuals for Covenant breaking (one was eventually readmitted to the Bahá’í community).
The years 1913‑21 witnessed a dialectic of consolidation and crisis. Many questioned whether the Bahá’í Faith was an independent religion and whether it could be organized. Those who saw it as an independent religion usually favored organization; those who preferred to see the Bahá’í ideals as a set of teachings that one could mix with other beliefs and with adherence to other movements often criticized the organizers as exclusivist and narrow‑mindedly sectarian. In 1917 some of the inclusivist-minded Bahá’ís established a reading room in Chicago, which split the Bahá’í community; they were eventually expelled from the Bahá’í Faith as Covenant-breakers. In 1919 another inclusivist‑minded group of Bahá’ís in New York founded Reality magazine, which after 1922 evolved into a platform for attacking Bahá’í organization and exclusivism. It eventually ceased to be affiliated with the Bahá’í Faith.
World War One (1914-18) proved to be another serious test for the American Bahá’ís. During much of the conflict the American Bahá’ís were cut off from communication with `Abdu’l‑Bahá. With no strong national institutions and no communication with the head of their religion, the Bahá’ís soon differed over their attitude toward the war. Some advocated American support of the Allies and went out to sell war bonds; others opposed the war. Some of the latter published a master compilation of Bahá’í scriptures on peace.
But the 1913-21 period also saw many important and positive developments in the American Bahá’í community. In 1916 and 1919 the American Bahá’ís received `Abdu’l‑Bahá’s Tablets of the Divine Plan, a series of letters to the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada that gave them a mandate to take the Bahá’í religion to every nation and territory on the globe. The tablets focused the Bahá’ís’ attention on teaching the Faith. They also produced a renewed concern about the strengthening of Bahá’í organization. The Chicago and Kenosha consultative bodies, which had lapsed, were reestablished; and Cleveland established a consultative body of its own, the first new body to be formed since 1910. By 1917 the American Bahá’ís had about six local Bahá’í governing bodies, the forerunners of local spiritual assemblies. Further accelerating the teaching of the Faith and the consolidation of the Bahá’í community was the North American visit of the renowned Persian Bahá’í teacher Fáil‑i‑Mázindarání in 1919. The year 1920 witnessed the selection of the architectual design for the Bahá’í House of Worship in Wilmette.
The 1913-21 period also saw a significant diversification of the American Bahá’í community. Catholics and Jews were attracted in larger numbers. A shift from an emphasis on fulfilment of biblical prophecy to a focus on the Bahá’í social reform teachings probably contributed to their greater receptivity. Most significantly, blacks enrolled in the Bahá’í Faith in many of the larger communities, resulting in their racial integration. Before 1912 no more than a dozen or two African‑Americans had joined the Bahá’í Faith, nearly all of them in Washington, D.C. `Abdu’l‑Bahá’s strong insistence on racial integration was beginning to have an important effect on the white Bahá’ís.
Bahá’í History: 1921‑63. On 28 November 1921 `Abdu’l‑Bahá died, plunging the Bahá’í world into grief. In his Will and Testament (q. v.) He appointed Shoghi Effendi to be His successor, and specified the mechanism for establishing local and national spiritual assemblies and the Universal House of Justice. Shoghi Effendi took the Will and Testament as his mandate for organizing the Bahá’ís, and used the Tablets of the Divine Plan as his mandate for spreading the Bahá’í religion to the entire planet in a systematic fashion. The American Bahá’í community was to be his chief instrument for accomplishing both goals.
Shoghi Effendi wrote the American Bahá’ís within months of assuming the Guardianship that local spiritual assemblies should be elected in every locality having nine or more Bahá’ís, and that the Bahai Temple Unity Executive Committee should evolve into a national spiritual assembly. While some opposition to the new emphasis on organization occurred, in the form of Ahmad Sohrab’s New History Society and Ruth White’s attack on the authenticity of the Will and Testament, the vast majority of Bahá’ís came gradually to accept Shoghi Effendi’s leadership and the new emphasis on organization it entailed. By April 1928 the number of spiritual assemblies in the continental United States had grown to forty‑five. Conversion of the Bahai Temple Unity into a national organization took four years; in 1925 Shoghi Effendi recognized it as the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada.
Shoghi Effendi wrote a stream of essays to the American Bahá’ís on basic Bahá’í teachings that clarified their understanding of the station of the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh, and `Abdu’l‑Bahá, the status of the Bahá’í Faith as an independent religion, the nature of the Bahá’í social and spiritual teachings, and the centrality of the Bahá’í Administrative Order to the Faith’s continued progress. These were subsequently published as The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh and Advent of Divine Justice. One result of better organization and better understanding was the beginning of genuine, long‑term growth of the American Bahá’í community, whose membership had fluctuated between about one and two thousand from 1898 to 1926. The 1936 religious census conducted by the United States government revealed 2584 Bahá’ís, a doubling over the numbers of ten years earlier. In that year the community had sixty‑four local spiritual assemblies. Bahá’í growth since that year has had its periods of rapid expansion, followed by plateaus‑‑the great depression and 1968‑74 were times of particularly rapid increase, while the post‑World War Two period and the 1980s were times of very slow expansion‑‑but the number of Bahá’ís in the United States has continued to increase.
Growing membership, better understanding of the basic teachings, and stronger organization in turn allowed the launching of systematic plans for growth. In 1937 Shoghi Effendi gave the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada a Seven Year Plan. It had three principal goals: the opening of every republic of Latin America to the Bahá’í religion through the settlement of pioneers; completion of the exterior of the Bahá’í House of Worship in Wilmette, Ill.; and establishment of at least one local spiritual assembly in every state in the United States and in every province in Canada. When the plan began eleven states and provinces had no Bahá’ís at all; thirty‑four lacked spiritual assemblies. In spite of World War Two, which hampered transportation, prevented the obtaining of construction materials, and made it nearly impossible for Bahá’í pioneers to find housing in their goal areas, all of the goals were won by 1944. The number of North American Bahá’ís increased to about 4800. Indeed, some goals were exceeded, with local spiritual assemblies being elected in fifteen Latin American cities; by 1947 this number had increased to thirty‑seven.
Shoghi Effendi gave the American Bahá’ís a two‑year respite before launching the Second Seven Year Plan in 1946. The new plan called for completion of the interior ornamentation of the House of Worship and its landscaping, so that it could be dedicated; the establishment of National Spiritual Assemblies in South America, Central America, and Canada; and the reestablishment of the Bahá’í Faith in war‑torn Europe. American pioneers soon opened eleven European countries to the Bahá’í Faith. The number of local spiritual assemblies in the continental United States continued to rise. The Canadian National Spiritual Assembly was first elected in 1948; one each for Central America and South America followed in 1951. In 1950 Shoghi Effendi announced a supplemental two year plan to open much of Africa to the Faith.
In 1953 the Seven Year Plan was successfully concluded. Shoghi Effendi designated it a Holy Year, for it was the centenary of the beginning of Bahá’u’lláh’s mission. It also marked the beginning of the Ten Year Crusade, an international plan to take the Bahá’í Faith to the rest of the nations and major territories on the planet. The United States Bahá’ís were given a major share of the goals. In the first six months of the plan five of the nine members of the National Spiritual Assembly resigned to go pioneering; a substantial fraction of America’s active Bahá’í membership spent all or part of the next decade in distant lands. The result was a quadrupling of the number of localities worldwide where Bahá’ís resided; the number of languages in which Bahá’í literature was translated more than tripled; and the number of National Spiritual Assemblies worldwide increased from twelve to fifty‑six. American Bahá’ís were responsible for perhaps a third of the goals of the plan.
Growth on the homefront also continued between the years 1953 and 1963. The number of Bahá’ís in the United States had grown to almost 7000 by 1956. By 1963 membership exceeded ten thousand, and enrollments were increasing that number by at least 1200 per year. A third of the new enrollments were youth (aged 15‑20).
Bahá’í History: 1964-92. In 1964 the Universal House of Justice announced an international Nine Year Plan. The United States was asked to form local and national spiritual assemblies in various Caribbean island groups and to assist nearly two dozen national spiritual assemblies all over the world by sending traveling teachers or by helping them acquire properties. On the homefront, the number of local spiritual assemblies was to be raised from 334 to 600, with at least two in every state, and the number of localities where Bahá’ís resided was to grow from 1650 to 3000. Particular efforts to reach Japanese‑, Chinese‑, Hispanic‑, native‑, and African‑Americans were specified.
All the goals were exceeded, perhaps by the largest margin in American Bahá’í history. In 1973 the United States had 824 local spiritual assemblies and Bahá’ís resided in 4809 localities. Bahá’í teaching efforts received an unexpected boost from the times; the 1960s were turbulent, causing many to despair for solutions to the world’s problems and search for new alternatives. The atmosphere fostered by the rapidly growing civil rights movement of the late fifties and early sixties was perhaps a major cause for the ten to fifteen percent annual membership growth rate that the American Bahá’í community experienced in the early 1960s; by 1969 the number of American Bahá’ís had grown to thirteen thousand. The late sixties and early seventies, however, saw both the greatest social unrest and the most rapid Bahá’í growth. Sociologists have noted that after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the bloody Tet offensive in Vietnam, and race riots–all in the first half of 1968–the youth culture took a radical turn. A comparatively small number of those searching youth became Bahá’ís, but the number had an enormous impact on the Bahá’í community. From thirteen thousand in 1969, the American Bahá’í community grew to eighteen thousand in 1970; to thirty‑one thousand in 1971; forty thousand in 1972; sixty thousand by 1974. Bahá’ís experienced conversions at practically every meeting. Older Bahá’ís became used to a community filled with persons with long hair, dirty clothing, and youthful enthusiasm. Bahá’í fund revenues jumped, and the increased demand on services provided by the Bahá’í National Center necessitated an increase in its staff from a handful to over a hundred in a few years. The Bahá’í Publishing Trust made so much money from the enormous demand for Bahá’í books that it was able to buy a new building with cash. Several large Bahá’í youth conferences were held.
Sudden growth had its negative effects. The vast majority of the new Bahá’ís knew little about their new religion’s teachings; many of the newly‑formed local spiritual assemblies had difficulty functioning as a result. Withdrawal rates also jumped; perhaps a third to a half of the new believers did not remain Bahá’ís. Since the withdrawals occurred over many years, subsequent Bahá’í membership growth appeared to be less than it really was; for example, by 1979 the American Bahá’í membership had grown to seventy‑five thousand, only fifteen thousand more than in 1974, but the increase reflected a much stronger enrollment rate than the net growth suggested. Other new Bahá’ís ceased to remain active and never notified the Bahá’í National Center that they no longer considered themselves Bahá’ís; as a result the percentage of the American Bahá’í membership with known addresses dropped. Nevertheless, the American Bahá’í community had permanently and significantly grown in size.
Not all of the expansion of the membership was caused by conversions from the youth culture; the Nine Year Plan was also the time the American Bahá’í community discovered mass teaching. In the rural south, particularly in South Carolina, the African‑American population proved particularly receptive and joined the Faith by the thousands. Consolidation of the new believers proved more difficult and occurred at a slower pace. In South Carolina a permanent facility, the Louis G. Gregory Institute, was established in 1972 to deepen the local Bahá’ís. Hispanic and native American populations also were attracted to the Bahá’í Faith, particularly in the Southwest.
The Five Year Plan, 1974‑79, saw a significant expansion in the number of local spiritual assemblies; from about 900 to 1488, eighty‑eight more than the plan called for. Diversification of the community continued. The number of Bahá’í communities on Indian reservations with local spiritual assemblies exceeded twenty‑five. After 1975 Southeast Asian refugees began to enter the United States; some had been Bahá’ís in Vietnam and Cambodia, more had converted in Asian refugee camps, and others became Bahá’ís in the United States. This introduced an entirely new ethnic group into the American Bahá’í community. After the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1978, Iranian Bahá’í refugees also began to enter the United States; eventually about ten thousand settled.
One goal of the Five Year Plan‑‑increasing the use of the media‑‑proved of great importance when the persecution of the Iranian Bahá’ís began in 1978. The American Bahá’ís had developed contacts with the media and, to some extent, with government officials, and now the experience proved useful. Throughout the Seven Year Plan (1979‑86) and the Six Year Plan (1986‑92) press coverage of the Iranian Bahá’ís was considerable, articles about the American Bahá’í community steadily increased, and the consequent awareness of the existence of the Bahá’í religion in the mind of the public steadily improved. In 1986 the Universal House of Justice declared that the Bahá’í Faith had emerged from obscurity, a long‑sought goal of the Bahá’ís.
The thirteen‑year period covered by the two plans, however, saw relatively slow membership growth in the United States. The number of local spiritual assemblies climbed to about seventeen hundred; total membership grew to a hundred‑ten thousand, a statistic that included about ten thousand children not previously counted. Membership growth averaged two to four percent per year, mostly from arriving Persians and Southeast Asians and the conversion of minorities; growth among the white and black middle class was relatively small. The 1980s saw American society take a sharply conservative, individualistic turn, and relatively fewer Americans were interested in a non‑Christian religion with a strong emphasis on law and community participation. "Entry by troops"–a great increase in Bahá’í membership promised by Shoghi Effendi–remained an elusive goal.
The period saw significant consolidation of the Bahá’í membership, however. The youth who enrolled in the late sixties and early seventies completed their education, married, and started families. A significant fraction of the marriages were between European and African‑Americans, or between newly‑arrived Persians and members of either group. A small number of the converts from among the "baby boomers" became interested in Bahá’í history, Islamic Studies, comparative religion, Arabic and Persian literature, and other fields in the humanities and social sciences; as a result Bahá’í Studies, which had practically ceased to exist from the 1920s to 1966, began to develop. In 1979 an Association for Bahá’í Studies was established. Contacts with the media and government became sufficiently important and numerous to necessitate the creation of a Bahá’í Office of External Affairs in Washington, D.C.
In order to consolidate the rural African‑American population in South Carolina, a Bahá’í radio station was established in 1984. Native American converts were assisted by the establishment of the Native American Bahá’í Institute on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona in 1982. First Persian, then Southeast Asian Bahá’ís were aided by a Bahá’í Refugee Office, established in Wilmette in 1984. The 1980s also saw significant interest in the Bahá’í Faith among Haitians and Chinese residing in the United States. In the late 1980s the United States received goals from the Universal House of Justice to expand the Bahá’í Faith in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe.
Impact on the Bahá’í World. The American Bahá’í community has exerted more influence on the Bahá’í world than any other community except Persia. The United States has been able to play such a significant role in the Bahá’í world for several reasons. The Bahá’í Faith grew much more quickly in America than in Europe and was much less effected by the social unrest and wars that have disrupted much of the twentieth-century world. While the Iranian Bahá’í community was larger and older, it suffered from severe legal limitations and periodic persecution; in contrast, the Bahá’í Faith in the United States was free to grow and express itself. The large, educated, prosperous, and relatively receptive population of the United States allowed that country to establish a relatively large Bahá’í community, and the community was able to produce leaders and provide financial resources unavailable to the Bahá’í Faith elsewhere in the globe.
The American National Spiritual Assembly has served as an organizational model for much of the Bahá’í world; its creation and development, closely monitored by Shoghi Effendi, served as a laboratory for the creation of the Bahá’í Administrative Order. Its bylaws became the model for Bahá’í bylaws worldwide, and its organization, committee structure, and policies were copied by many other assemblies. Its editions of the Bahá’í scriptures have served as the standard editions of many of the English-language texts. Pioneers that it sent out established the Faith in Latin America, the Pacific, Australasia, East Asia, part of Africa, and much of Europe, its committees oversaw the development of the Faith in many of these regions. Consequently it was instrumental in forming eighty National Spiritual Assemblies, more than half of the world’s total.
Of the forty-nine individuals who have been appointed Hands of the Cause of God, at least fourteen were Americans; among them were such luminaries as Horace Holley, Dorothy Baker, Martha Root, and Keith Ransom-Kehler. Seven of the fourteen men who have served on the Universal House of Justice were either American by birth or had been members of the American National Spiritual Assembly. Green Acre, the first American Bahá’í summer school, became a model for similar facilities across the globe.
Impact on American Culture and Society. The American Bahá’í community has grown considerably in size since its establishment in 1894, but remains very small in comparison with the country’s total population: about one twentieth of one percent of its people. Its impact on American society and culture, in turn, has been minor to date. Its greatest impact, perhaps, has been in the field of race relations. Among the recognized public advocates of civil rights have been three Bahá’ís: Alain Locke, Robert Abbott, and Nina Gomer DuBois (the wife of W. E. B. Dubois). Louis Gregory, the most prominent African-American Bahá’í, was in touch with nearly every prominent black American between the years 1910 and 1940, and influenced the thinking of some of them. The support that white Bahá’ís lent to black organizations, especially before 1950, was appreciated and had an impact on them. The first major public statement of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, The Vision of Race Unity: America’s Most Challenging Issue, focused on America’s race problems and the relevant Bahá’í principles.
The second most important area of Bahá’í impact probably has been the peace movement. Prominent early twentieth-century leaders of the peace movement such as Benjamin Trueblood knew Bahá’ís, and a few Bahá’ís were active in the peace movement. The reemergence of a peace movement in the 1970s and especially the 1980s has slowly received Bahá’í support, especially after 1985, when the Universal House of Justice issued its statement The Promise of World Peace.
Finally, Bahá’ís as individuals have made important contributions to American art and music. Of course, it cannot be said that the contributions necessary were always identifiably Bahá’í in any sense. Robert Hayden, one of the most prominent African‑American poets, was a Bahá’í. Mark Tobey, a fairly well‑known abstract painter, was a Bahá’í, as is John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie, the jazz musician. The list of Bahá’í popular musicians and actors is long.
Bahá’í Understanding of the Destiny of America. The Bahá’í scriptures promise that the United States will play a central role in the development of a world civilization. `Abdu’l-Bahá emphasized that eventually America "would lead all nations spiritually" (Promulgation of Universal Peace, 104). `Abdu’l-Bahá’s Prayer for America (Bahá’í Prayers, 25) elaborates on three themes: that America should become "glorious in spiritual degrees even as it has aspired to material degrees"; that it must "upraise the standard of the oneness of humanity"; and that it must "promulgate the Most Great Peace." The Bahá’í scriptures thus view the combatting materialism, the promoting of racial equality and oneness, and the advancing of the cause of world peace as the central priorities not just of the American Bahá’ís, but of the nation as a whole.
The impact of the Bahá’í Faith on America seems destined to increase in the future. Its membership continues to grow, at a rate that is strongly influenced by social trends. The ability of the Bahá’ís to articulate the teachings of their religion in a way that is relevant to social needs has been improving. The American Bahá’í community is highly diverse‑‑far more diverse than American society as a whole‑‑and may prove a significant laboratory for the creation of values essential to an increasingly pluralistic society.
Bibliography. No comprehensive history of the American Bahá’í community has yet been written. Shoghi Effendi’s God Passes By contains chapters that cover American Bahá’í history from 1894 to 1944. Peter Smith’s "The American Bahá’í Community, 1894-1917: A Preliminary Survey" published in Moojan Momen, ed., Studies in Bábí and Bahá’í History, Volume One (Los Angeles: Kalimát Press, 1982) offers the best analytical study of the early period, from a sociological point of view. Robert Stockman’s The Bahá’í Faith in America: Origins, 1892-1900, Volume One (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1985), covers the very beginning of the Bahá’í Faith in America; his unpublished second volume will cover the period from 1900 to 1912. Richard Hollinger’s "Ibrahim George Kheiralla and the Bahá’í Faith in America," published in Juan R. Cole and Moojan Momen, eds., Studies in Bábí and Bahá’í History, Volume Two: From Iran East and West (Los Angeles: Kalimát Press, 1984) provides extremely valuable detail about the man who brought the Bahá’í Faith to the Occident. Peter Smith’s "Reality Magazine: Editorship and Ownership of a Bahá’í Periodical," in Juan R. Cole and Moojan Momen, eds., Studies in Bábí and Bahá’í History, Volume Two: From Iran East and West (Los Angeles: Kalimát Press, 1984) examines some of the more extreme beliefs possessed by American Bahá’ís before the 1930s. Loni Bramson Lerche’s "Some Aspects of the Development of the Bahá’í Administrative Order in America, 1922-1936," in Moojan Momen, ed., Studies in Bábí and Bahá’í History, Vol. One (Los Angeles: Kalimát Press, 1982), provides the only examination to date of the establishment of the Bahá’í organizational system in the United States.
No histories covering the 1930s or more recently have been published, but information on the period is available through biographies and specialized works. Bruce Whitmore’s The Dawning Place: The Building of a Temple, the Forging of the North American Bahá’í Community (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1984) provides a history of the construction of the Bahá’í House of Worship in Wilmette from 1903 to 1953, and inevitably covers institutional developments and a certain amount of community history in the process. Gayle Morrison’s To Move the World: Louis G. Gregory and the Advancement of Racial Unity in America (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982), a biography of the most prominent black American Bahá’í, covers some American Bahá’í community developments, and mentions the activities of many central American Bahá’ís, during the period 1909 to 1951. Mabel Garis’s Martha Root: Lioness at the Threshold (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1983) and Nathan Rutstein’s Corinne True: Faithful Handmaid of `Abdu’l‑Bahá (Oxford: George Ronald, 1988) provide biographies of two active American Bahá’í women, whose Bahá’í activities span 1909-1939 and 1899-1962 respectively. Finally, O. Z. Whitehead has provided biographical sketches of a bout two dozen American Bahá’ís in his two books, Some Bahá’ís to Remember (Oxford: George Ronald, 1983) and Some Early Bahá’ís of the West (Oxford: George Ronald, 1976).