The Bahá’í Faith in New York State
The Bahá’í Faith entered New York State within a half century of the religion’s beginnings in Iran in 1844. In December 1892 Ibrahim George Kheiralla (1849-1929), born in what today is Lebanon, arrived in New York City. He claimed the Faith’s founder, Bahá’u’lláh (1817-92) sent him to America. He headed west, settling in Chicago, where the first Americans became Bahá’ís in 1894. Several Bahá’í families moved to greater New York City in late 1897 and invited Kheiralla to give a series of Bahá’í classes in the winter and spring of 1898. A Bahá’í community in New York City resulted.
Kheiralla was unaware of basic Bahá’í teachings such as the unity of humankind, equality of the sexes, the establishment of world peace, universal education, and selection of a universal auxiliary language, or of such Bahá’í religious practices as daily obligatory prayer, an annual fasting period in March, or commemoration of Bahá’í Holy Days. Instead, he focused on the coming of the Bahá’í Faith as the fulfillment of biblical prophecies. In New York City the 150-200 converts often were middle and upper-middle class white Americans of Protestant background. An exception was Olive Jackson, a dressmaker and the first North American Bahá’í woman of African-American decent.
In 1899 the first American Bahá’ís met the head of the Faith, `Abdu’l-Bahá (1844-1921; son of Bahá’u’lláh). He sent a series of Iranian Bahá’ís to North America, all of whom visited New York City. They were able to provide basic information about Bahá’í teachings and practices and translate Bahá’í scripture into English.
`Abdu’l-Bahá arrived in New York City on April 11, 1912, making it his headquarters for the next nine months. He traveled north to Boston and Montreal, south to Washington, and west to Chicago and San Francisco, generally returning to New York City to rest in between. He greatly strengthened the Bahá’í community in New York City. Buffalo was his only stop in upstate New York. `Abdu’l-Bahá left New York City for Europe on December 5, 1912.
The period 1913-1950 saw steady growth of the Bahá’í Faith, and the New York Bahá’ís, who included some successful businessmen and a few intellectuals, contributed significantly. In 1925 the U.S. Bahá’í Publishing Committee moved to New York City. In 1932 the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of New York City (the nine-member elected governing body of the local Bahá’í community; Bahá’ís do not have clergy) was legally incorporated; its bylaws became the model for local Bahá’í communities worldwide. A resident of New York City, Horace Holley (1887-1960) was elected to the National Spiritual Assembly (the national governing body) starting in 1923 and was elected secretary starting in 1924. This brought the national Bahá’í organization to New York City, where it remained until 1939, when construction of a national Bahá’í House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois (a Chicago suburb) prompted Holley to move there. Bahá’í publishing moved to Wilmette in 1940.
New York City was the headquarters of a Bahá’í splinter group, the New History Society, established about 1930. It was active until the 1970s and ceased affiliation with the Bahá’í teachings by the 1990s, when it became a nonprofit cultural organization.
Expansion of the Bahá’í Faith across the State has been steady. By 1912 small groups of Bahá’ís (less than 9 members) existed in Jamestown, Ithaca, Utica, and Buffalo. By 1926 Bahá’í communities with nine-member local Spiritual Assemblies existed in Buffalo, Geneva, and Yonkers. Ithaca elected a spiritual assembly by 1928; Binghamton by 1932; Rochester by 1936; Jamestown by 1940; Syracuse by 1944; Waterloo 1946; Hamburg Township and Mount Vernon by 1950. The Geneva Bahá’í community was distinguished in the late 1930s by its integration of African Americans and European Americans. By 1963 New York State had spiritual assemblies in eighteen localities. In 2000, the state had 4,300 Bahá’ís and 34 spiritual assemblies. While white Protestants remain the principal source of converts, New York Bahá’ís include a significant number of former Catholics and Jews, with American Indians and immigrants from Iran, Southeast Asia, and Spanish-speaking countries also present.