Baha'i Library Online

See original version at

COLLECTIONPublished articles
TITLEOutpost of a World Religion: The Bahá'í Faith in Australia 1920-1947
AUTHOR 1Graham Hassall
TITLE_PARENTJournal of Religious History
ABSTRACTAn updated version of a paper published in two places.
NOTES Also published in Bahá'ís in the West, ed. Peter Smith (2004).

See also Hassall's Bahá'í Communities by Country: Research Notes.

TAGSAustralia; Bahá'í history by country; Indigenous people; Race
CONTENT Whereas Australia's religious tradition consists principally of Catholic, Protestant and secular beliefs, the presence of other traditions, notably Buddhist and Islamic, has been noted in recent years. Of the smaller religious movements in Australia, the Bahá'í Faith has only rarely been mentioned in the literature. This paucity of critical evaluation stands in contrast to the fields of Islamic Studies, and its predecessor, Orientalism, which are rich in Bahá'í documentation. Recent studies suggest, however, growing momentum in the study of Bahá'í communities in regional and global historical contexts. The present study reviews the Bahá'í Faith's origins in nineteenth century Iran, and traces its establishment in Australia in 1920-47, a period in which the Bahá'ís moved to a less individualistic and more organised pattern of administration and activity.

The Bahá'í Faith emerged from the Shaykhi sect of Shi'i Islam during the last century. The claim made in 1844 by Siyyid Ali Muhammad (1819-1850, the "Bab") that he was the Imam Mahdi, the return of the "Hidden Imam", caused upheaval that did not end with his execution in 1850. That such a claim could cause widespread unrest has been the subject of much discussion. Reasons put forward include the "chiliastic motif" of Shi'i Islam, the "social unrest" that welcomes a saviour, and the unstable nature of Persia's nineteenth century political structure. Certainly, nineteenth century Persian society comprised many languages, and social systems, and was "a mosaic of cultures". The dominant group within Shi'i Islam, the Twelver sect, was itself prone to factionalism, as there was little consensus as to who should rule in place of the "Hidden Imam". The Shahs of the Qájár dynasty, although considered "absolute" rulers, merely managed Iran's international relations, and exerted little control over economic and social life of village, tribe, town, or guild. It was the Ulema, the religious leaders, ruling uneasily on behalf of the "Hidden Imam", who dictated Iranian values, according to their interpretation of Islamic laws.

This "ancient political consensus" between Muslim clergy and hereditary Shahs was menaced in the nineteenth century by the destabilising influence of the West, particularly British and Russian pressures on Iranian economic and political institutions, and by the desire of the Qajar Shahs to unseat the Ulema, and consolidate their hold on state power. In this context a religious groundswell appeared, based on Koranic interpretations suggesting that the Twelfth Imam was soon to reappear. As the same time, Biblical interpretations predicting the imminent return of Christ were gathering adherents in the West. The difference between the return of an Eastern messiah (the Twelfth Imam, or "Imam Mahdi") and a Western messiah (the return of Christ) was that, "politically, the claim of Mahdihood was a statement of theocratic authority". In other words, whoever claimed to be the Imam automatically laid claim to the authority presently residing with the Ulema and the Shahs. The rise of millennial groups, therefore, greatly antagonised these political and religious leaders, who spared no efforts to destroy them.

The Báb's execution by firing squad in the square of Tabriz in 1850, and the torture and execution of thousands of his followers in succeeding years, did not quell the movement, for one of the Báb's claims was that a second messenger would soon appear, to fulfil his mission. Amid much expectation and speculation, Mirza Husayn Ali (1817-1892, "Bahá'u'lláh") declared in 1863 that he was the "Promised One" foretold by the Báb. For this claim Bahá'u'lláh, born of a Persian noble family, endured several exiles from his homeland and spent the last years of his life in 'Akká, at that time a part of the Ottoman Empire, later a part of Palestine, and now Israel. During forty years in exile Bahá'u'lláh continued to produce wide-ranging treatises and letters which now form a significant corpus of Bahá'í scriptural texts.

Bahá'u'lláh's chief doctrines centre on the imperative of achieving world order, and delineate the religious values, and the social and political mechanisms required to rehabilitate the fortunes of the prevailing "lamentably defective" order. He stressed the historical continuity linking the major world religions; claimed that all religious revelation has had one common, divine source; that the evolution of human society through successive stages of social and political complexity has necessitated a progressive unfoldment of such divine guidance; and that the Judaic, Christian, Islamic, and even Buddhist and Hindu epochs are complementary, rather than conflicting, elements of Divine Revelation. To quote Shoghi Effendi's summary of 1938,

The Bahá'í Faith recognises the unity of God and of His Prophets, upholds the principle of an unfettered search after truth, condemns all forms of superstition and prejudice, teaches that the fundamental purpose of religion is to promote concord and harmony, that it must go hand-in-hand with science, and that it constitutes the sole and ultimate basis of a peaceful, an ordered and progressive society. It inculcates the principle of equal opportunity, rights and privileges for both sexes, advocates compulsory education, abolishes extremes of poverty and wealth, exalts work performed in the spirit of service to the rank of worship, recommends the adoption of an auxiliary international language, and provides the necessary agencies for the establishment and safeguarding of a permanent and universal peace.

Significantly, Bahá'u'lláh's "administrative order", does not include clerical offices. The prophet claimed that such roles were vital to past societies, but are no longer necessary. Theoretically, this removal of the distinction between clergy and laity spreads responsibility for the protection and propagation of the religion to all members of the Bahá'í community. At the same time, Bahá'u'lláh provided for both hereditary and elected forms of authority, and in an effort to avoid the schisms which have affected virtually all past religions, he established a "covenant" with his followers, by which they agreed to turn, at the time of his death, to his son 'Abdu'l-Bahá (Sir 'Abdu'l-Bahá Abbas, 1844-1921), who is remembered chiefly for his exemplary personal life and for his visits to Europe and North America in 1911-12, during which he consolidated a western following. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, in turn, nominated his grandson, Shoghi Effendi Rabbani (1897-1957) as "Guardian" of the Bahá'í Faith. The hereditary institution of Guardianship was short-lived, however, since Shoghi Effendi and his Canadian-born wife, Mary Maxwell, had no children. Since 1963 leadership of the Bahá'í community has been exercised by the Universal House of Justice, a body of nine elected members residing in Haifa, Israel. Despite several schismatic episodes, the doctrine of the "covenant" has on the whole succeeded in maintaining a singular world-wide Bahá'í community.

Shoghi Effendi's crowning achievement was the establishment of an "administrative order", based on Bahá'u'lláh's texts, in which Bahá'ís participate at local, national and international levels. In the transfer of the Bahá'í Faith from East to West, much debate has focussed on whether 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi added Western appeal to an Eastern movement of religious reform, or whether they merely interpreted a meta-cultural, universal religious ethic, in terms familiar to Western society. The Bahá'ís view their religion has having emerged from Islam in the same manner that Christian emerged from Judaism: like each of these religions, it regards itself as essentially global, or world-embracing, rather than regional, or sectarian.

The task of spreading Bahá'í belief in Australia and New Zealand was first taken up by Clara (d.1960) and Hyde Dunn (d.1941), who arrived in Sydney on 10 April 1920. Clara Dunn, possessed of a fiery Irish character, and Hyde, the proper English gentleman, had met 'Abdu'l-Bahá during his visit to California in 1912. In 1919 they learnt of his appeal to the North American Bahá'ís to take the Bahá'í message to all parts of the world, and chose to spend their years of retirement in Australia. Hyde had become a Bahá'í in Seattle in 1905, having been instructed in the Bahá'í teachings by such prominent Bahá'ís as Thornton Chase, Lua Getsinger and Ella Cooper, with whom he later continued a substantial correspondence. He had been an enthusiastic worker for the movement in California and was possibly the first to teach it in Nevada.

Clara Dunn spent five years as the lone Bahá'í in Walla Walla, Washington, having been introduced to the movement by Hyde, in about 1907. The two were married in 1917 following the death the previous year of Hyde's first wife Fanny. Neither had family in California: Hyde had migrated from England, and had no children, and Clara had married and left Ireland for Canada, where she was widowed, and had a son (raised by her late husband's family), by the age of 19. Hyde had worked as a travelling salesman in Europe and North America. In Australia he did similar work for the Nestlés Milk Co., retiring in about 1933 at the age of 77, after eleven years with the company. He died in Sydney in 1941. Clara Dunn subsequently took on a speaking role which she had previously left to her husband, and continued promoting the Bahá'í teachings until her death in Sydney in November 1960.

Prior to the Dunns' arrival in Australia there had been occasional press coverage of Bahá'í events. In 1904 the Rev. Charles Strong preached on the life of 'Abdu'l-Bahá in the Australian Church he had founded in Melbourne. Robert Stewart, a Brisbane dentist, learnt about Bahá'í from a Rev. H. Price in 1912, and in the same year some Australians and New Zealanders read of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's travels in The Christian Commonwealth. Margaret Stevenson had written from Auckland to North America for literature and had even considered herself to be a Bahá'í. The Revealer, a New Thought journal published in Sydney, quoted sayings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá from 1916, and Shoghi Effendi referred in 1919 to correspondence received from "the far-off continent of Australia". In the 1920s Bahá'í was regarded by many as an "eastern" religious movement rather than a global one, which was spreading in western countries. Reports of Queen Marie of Rumania's acceptance of the Bahá'í teachings filtered into the Australian press, and a 1927 report from the New Zealand Student Christian Movement referred to "the Bahá'í movement in Persia - a Muhommadan (sic) reformation under strong Christian influence, possibly traceable to Henry Martyn and his New Testament".

The first Australian Bahá'ís emerged from a religious sub-culture which, dissatisfied with the sectarianism and dogmatism of the major churches, had sought out in the years following World War I alternative religious ideas and traditions. The Theosophical Society, and "New Thought" groups were expanding, as were Spiritualist and Occult churches. New Thought, which emerged from the same North American philosophical and "mental therapeutics" movement that produced Christian Science, was established in Melbourne by the medical practitioner Julia Seton, and other branches were established in Sydney and Adelaide. The movement was individualistic and non-liturgical, and emphasised the power of constructive thinking. "God" was conceived of as "universal mind" or "infinite wisdom", and the movement, holding that a "new age" was emerging, looked to a glorious future rather than to a golden past. Theosophy, another movement with which some Bahá'ís were involved, was more reflective in its approach, seeking to revive the wisdom of the "esoteric philosophies of ancient times".

Evidently, Dunn sympathised with the aims of these movements, and late in 1922 the first responses to his Bahá'í message came from their members. While working as a travelling salesman, Dunn mentioned his Bahá'í beliefs in the continent's major cities and smaller towns. By July 1923 he had visited 225 towns, an average of one new town for each four and a half days work since commencing with Nestles. Typically, while posted in one of the state-capitals for several months, Hyde travelled through country areas mid-week on business while Clara remained in a rented cottage, inviting people to weekend meetings. In Melbourne during 1923, for example, the Dunns spoke on Friday evenings in the home of a herbalist to audiences of over one-hundred. Oswald Whitaker, (d.1942) a Sydney optometrist interested in Theosophy, accepted Hyde Dunn's definition of "love" as being "the whole law and power of the Great Universe", while Effie Baker (d.1968), a photographer and model maker, accepted Dunn's message immediately after hearing it at Melbourne's New Civilisation Centre. In addition to further appearances, in 1923, at the Centre, Dunn spoke by invitation to an audience at Melbourne's Theosophical lodge, and nine women decided to continue with a weekly study class. The Dunns also spoke at Spiritualist churches, an Occult church, and the Lyceum Club. Emily Easy, who became a Bahá'í in Melbourne in 1926, addressed Spiritualist Churches into the 1930s.

The first Bahá'ís in Adelaide and Hobart, Pearce and Maysie Almond, and Gretta Lamprill, met the Dunns at New Thought meetings. In Auckland Emily Axford came to the Bahá'í community by way of New Thought, Spiritualism and the Socialist movement. The Brooks family, from Booleroo in South Australia, were Methodists conditioned to weekly family Bible readings, although they too first heard about Bahá'í at a New Thought meeting. Hilda Brooks, (d.1969) secretary of the National Assembly 1934-1944, developed her Bahá'í talks on a firmly Biblical basis, and practiced lecturing in front of family members before gaining the confidence to speak in public. In Perth Herbert Webb became a Bahá'í following the Dunns' contact with the Seekers Christian Fellowship established by his brother, A.S. Webb. In other instances, the First World War had had an effect. Joe Dobbins, an Adelaide electricity linesman, was searching for solutions that would "stop war", and was alerted to Bahá'í by Hilda Gilbert, a bookshop attendant who was herself a member, and who introduced Dobbins to the Dunns, then living at Blackwood. Bertha Mochan, a school-teacher who married Dobbins a short time after, was later to take the Bahá'í teachings to the New Hebrides (Vanuatu).

Although the educational and class backgrounds of the first Australian Bahá'ís are hard to determine, it is clear that many were single, being either unmarried, or widowed, and 80% of all converts between 1920-47 were female. Approximately 186 people associated with the Dunns. The majority had professional, clerical, or domestic occupations:

Australian Bahá'í Community: occupations identified to 1947


By 1926 the Dunns had visited the capital cities of all Australian states as well as Auckland, New Zealand. Although there were some Australians open to new ideas, the Bahá'ís found that religious sensibilities in general were quite dull and provincial. The Dunn's Sydney home was, for Margaret Dixson, "an outpost in a desert of unbelief and materiality". Amy Wilkins, living at Lake Macquarie lamented in 1930 that "people everywhere are eager for the truth but will not tolerate a new religion". Intolerance toward other races, so characteristic of Australian society, provided a further contrast between the worldview of the first Australian Bahá'ís and that of their wider cultural context. Shoghi Effendi wrote to Major Norman McLeod, a Melbourne Bahá'í, the view that the "White Australia" policy of "rigid exclusion of coloured, Asiatic races from Australia finds no justification in the Bahá'í teachings". Bertram Dewing, in Auckland, reported that in the 1920s the suggestion of racial equality "met real disgust. The favourite encounter was the scornful question 'how would you like your sister to marry a coloured man?'". Thus, the Canadian Bahá'í Siegfried Schopflocher reported to a gathering of Bahá'ís in North America that he experienced during his 1926 business trip to Australia "a continent full of race prejudice". Efforts to introduce the Bahá'í teachings to Aboriginal Australians only commenced later, in the 1950s.

North American Bahá'ís made several crucial visits to the Australian community. The visit of the American Bahá'í journalist and Esperantist, Martha Root, to several state capitals in 1924, gave timely impetus to the Dunns' teaching efforts. Miss Root had recently visited China and other parts of Asia, and her visit, consisting of no less that 25 appearances in Melbourne, 36 in Perth, 24 in Auckland and Wellington, 2 in Tasmania and 8 in Sydney, attracted unprecedented newspaper coverage (at least 16 press items) and several new members. Root's 1924 engagements were not specifically oriented to Bahá'í audiences, and much of her contact with the Bahá'ís was social. Her radio broadcasts usually related travel experiences, or the virtues of Esperanto, rather than information concerning the Bahá'í teachings. Nevertheless, her visit fired the enthusiasm of the small Bahá'í groups, and attracted some new members to it.

At this time membership required no more than a profession of belief, and regular attendance at meetings. The Dunns established administrative bodies known as Local Assemblies, incorporating however many Bahá'ís resided in each city. The first Local Assembly was established in Melbourne, in December 1923, followed by others in Perth, in July 1924, and Adelaide, in December 1924. Assemblies were also established in Sydney in April 1925, and in Auckland early in 1923. Perhaps enthused by the success of Martha Root's 1924 visit, Hyde Dunn felt that by 1926 the small Australian Bahá'í community was ready to establish a National Spiritual Assembly. The reality, however, was that the first Local Assemblies had only a vague understanding of their purposes, and method of functioning. Dunn did not know, for example, that Shoghi Effendi had defined a membership of Assemblies of nine (communities having more than nine members were to elect a body of nine; no Assembly could exist where less than nine Bahá'ís resided), and he established as the Adelaide Assembly "the people present and ... such other persons as [were] desirous of joining" - making a total of twenty-three.

But the Dunns soon found that there was more to establishing Bahá'í communities than bringing together people interested in "the new age". After functioning for two years, the Adelaide Assembly held a special meeting to discover, if possible, what was "holding up" the movement in Adelaide. The chairman, Ron Cover, Hyde Dunn's boss at Nestlés, said that his experience was that "strangers" were either unable to understand the language of the Bahá'í message or were somewhat over-awed by the requirements, such as daily prayer. Eventually, each of the Local Assemblies established in the period 1923-1925 lapsed. Adelaide's Assembly was re-established in 1929. Perth's remained in abeyance until 1936. Melbourne's functioned only intermittently until 1948. Sydney's recommenced in 1932. The few Bahá'ís in Brisbane were loosely affiliated at best, and were more likely interested observers, than active adherents. Effie Baker, who had gone on a pilgrimage to Haifa in 1925 and stayed to work for Shoghi Effendi until 1936, suggested that 1926 was too early a date for the Australian Bahá'ís to establish their own national body. The matter was taken up some five years later, as a result of the visit of a second American Bahá'í, Mrs Keith Ransom-Kehler, who visited Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, between September and November 1931. Following one of her Sydney meetings Ransom-Kehler reported to Shoghi Effendi that, although the Dunns had predicted that Sydney would be too "hard-boiled" for her to achieve much, particularly during the Christmas season, some 26 people had "embraced the teachings", including people of "wealth and prominence or genuine capacity".

It was certainly the case that Ransom-Kehler's efforts in Sydney revived the activities of what had been a flagging Assembly. Stanley W. and Mariette Bolton, for instance, travelled to North America to study Chiropractic soon after becoming Bahá'ís during Ransom-Kehler's Sydney visit, then returned to contribute almost four decades of material, administrative, and spiritual strength to the community. Mariette Bolton later took the Bahá'í teachings to New Caledonia. Although Root played a significant role in lifting the spirits and raising the public profile of the small Australian Bahá'í community; and Ransom-Kehler was instrumental in clarifying Bahá'í administrative procedure, and smoothing the way for the establishment of the National Spiritual Assembly; it should not be construed that the North American Bahá'ís moulded the character of the Australian community. The Holy Land, and the Shrines of the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh on Mount Carmel and in Akká respectively, were at the centre of the Bahá'ís' religious devotions; and Shoghi Effendi, ministering Bahá'í communities world-wide as the Faith's "Guardian" resident in Haifa, was at the heart of their affections. Support from North America was given to the Australians by the Americans through his counsels and instructions.

Similarly, Shoghi Effendi directed in principle, the activities of the Australian community. But whereas Hyde and Clara Dunn had found their first response to the Bahá'í message within the circles of New Thought and Theosophy, some Bahá'ís schooled in the cultic milieu resisted evolving definitions of Bahá'í membership, and pattern of administration. Having divested themselves of religious dogma, hierarchy and ecclesia, those who were attracted to the Dunns "movement" for "universal brotherhood" resisted the consolidation of Bahá'í administration, which they equated with the forms of Christianity they had left behind. In Melbourne, Bahá'ís held different opinions on doctrinal issues, such as the necessity for loyalty to a central authority (namely, to the Guardianship of Shoghi Effendi), and the necessity to distinguish between Bahá'í and traditional Christian affiliation. Thus into the 1930s, the key issue of what constituted membership in the Bahá'í community, and the question of continuing previous church affiliations, had not been addressed. Various examples of ambiguous or multiple membership can be given. Thus, Amy Wilkins considered herself a "Quakeress" as well as a Bahá'í, although most of her energies went into her role as President of the Newcastle branch of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. Bessie Rischbieth, a Theosophist, but more well known for her involvement in the Australian women's movement, was attracted to the Bahá'í movement, but chose to promote it without joining. Another prominent Theosophist, Dr Jack Bean, medical practitioner, brother of war historian C.E.W. Bean and protege of John Burgmann, Anglican Bishop of Goulburn, worked ardently for both beliefs from 1944 before re-centring himself in Theosophy in 1950.

'Abdu'l-Bahá had addressed the Theosophical Society in London in September 1911 at the invitation of its President, Mrs Annie Besant, and Bean had noted his statement that Theosophy and Bahá'í beliefs had much in common. For Bean, both were "all-synthesising movements", and different versions of "one wisdom". Yet there were differences between the two, which he at first viewed as being "complimentary", but later judged to be "irreconcilable". Bean believed in re-incarnation, which Bahá'í scripture refuted, and his simultaneous endorsement of these conflicting doctrines proved impossible. Furthermore, his belief that Annie Besant and 'Abdu'l-Bahá occupied equal spiritual stations was in conflict with Bahá'í belief in the latters' unique station (as son of Bahá'u'lláh, and "Centre of the Covenant") of "perfect exemplar". Most importantly, Bean could not accept the final authority, and infallibility in interpretation, of either Shoghi Effendi, 'Abdu'l-Bahá, or even Bahá'u'lláh. He resolved his attraction to both movements, but his inability to embrace both, by concluding that the Bahá'í Faith, although a positive religion in every way, was in advance of its time. Bean felt that Bahá'u'lláh's call to universal brotherhood, which all agreed was noble, would not be listened to by the majority of the world's population; Theosophy, by comparison, might only attract a small minority, yet its utility was for Bean more immediate. Put in less theological terms, Bean had hoped that the Bahá'í community would be more activist in such causes as post-war refugee settlement in Australia, and in combating racial intolerance. The National Assembly, while sympathetic to Bean's interests, held that individual Bahá'ís were free to work with such social movements as they pleased, but that their major concern as a community was to first strengthen its administrative base. Impatient with this single-minded and long-term strategy Bean, and others having similar concerns, opted out of the community. Even so, numerous Bahá'ís remained influenced by their previous association with "new age" organisations. Hilda Brooks, for example, elaborated on the Bahá'í principles in her public talks through such themes as "The Dawn of a New Day", "Freedom", "A New Age", "A New Design for Living", and "A New Existence". Yet similarities between the worldviews of the metaphysical and spiritualist movements were accompanied by significant differences. Whereas spiritualists believed in direct communication with departed souls, Bahá'ís were discouraged from such speculations. Also, New Thought placed little emphasis on establishing the administrative machinery required for the wider propagation of its beliefs, and was no more than a collection of loosely-affiliated organisations, each reflecting the character and interests of their individual founders. The Bahá'í Faith, on the other hand, had as its basis a "covenant", which bound members to an administrative order, and succession of authority, as well as a framework for supra-national organisation. Most importantly, the Bahá'í Faith had truth-claims, with the station of Bahá'u'lláh clearly delineated as a Prophet, not merely a religious reformer, or social and political activist, whose ideas could be selectively grafted on to ideas similarly acquired from other sources. This was the point that some of the early adherents missed: neither Bahá'í beliefs, nor membership in the Bahá'í community were syncretic. Tolerance tended to be mistaken for eclecticism, and a clear "Bahá'í" identity was hard to perceive, given the small number of adherents. For several decades the Bahá'í presence in Australia consisted of individuals responding to religious idealism, as much as communities functioning according to the laws, ordinances and ethos which underlie any religious culture.

Whereas many Bahá'ís regarded themselves as being in the vanguard of the "New Age", their involvement in issues of social reform was less vigorous. The majority believed that Esperanto would be the future international language, supported Esperanto meetings, and pursued Esperanto lessons printed in Herald of the South, a Bahá'í magazine initiated by Bertram Dewing in Auckland in 1925. Bahá'ís in Adelaide, Melbourne and Perth conducted, in addition, their own Esperanto classes. Jessie Henderson, an early Melbourne Bahá'í, was President of the National Council of Women in Victoria, while other Bahá'ís supported the work of the League of Nations. Ethel Dawe, for example, was secretary of the League of Nations Union in Adelaide. Vader Fraser-Paterson was an active member of the "League of Youth" and a peace society in Broken Hill. Sydney Bahá'í Earnest Brewer, manager of the Daily Guardian, shared Hyde Dunn's interest in economic conditions, and corresponded with him on the subject of economic policies and their social impact. In an early letter to its sister communities, Melbourne Assembly explained its desire to contact "like-minded" groups:

We held our first meeting of the nine last Monday and have decided to follow in the footsteps of our Boston, Manchester, ect, friends and to invite occasionally to speak at our meetings, speakers from other societies, who are seeking high ideals like ourselves. We shall always open the meetings with Bahá'í prayers, hymns, and readings which will co-incide with the subject chosen for the evening. This will bring about a union, one of our highest aims, that we might otherwise miss, and it may bring others into our midst.

The Local Assemblies engaged in charity work. In 1925 the Sydney Assembly appointed Mrs Rose, aged over 70, to the task of visiting the sick, and orphaned children, activities she enjoyed doing. On several occasions the Adelaide Assembly responded to newspaper articles reporting cases of hardship, sending aid, in one instance, to an Unley family that had three sick daughters to care for. In Melbourne, the Assembly made clothes for poor children and sent money to Haifa in aid of flood victims.

Hyde Dunn's association with "new age" movements continued. In 1932 he and Oswald Whitaker spoke about Bahá'í to the Radiant Health Society, the Harmony Centre, a spiritualist society, and a healing group. Periodically Bahá'í speakers, including Martha Root, addressed the Unitarian Church. In 1934, Dunn spoke at a "fraternisation meeting" of twenty organisations, conducted by the Harmony Centre. A similar meeting held the following year attracted 150 participants from thirty organisations "representing the trend of the new age". Several Bahá'ís were involved, Oswald Whitaker as chairman of the evening and Guy Inman as secretary. A few Bahá'ís maintained an interest in astrology. Although never encouraged in her astrological studies, since little credence is given to them in Bahá'í belief, Margaret Dixson - who was also an Esperantist, and once described as "a deeply intellectual woman" -wrote to the North American National Assembly in search of a publisher for "Harmony and the Zodiac" by her friend Ernest A. Wilby, who was not a Bahá'í, but who was "very interested in the teachings and an earnest seeker after truth".

Whereas involvement in like-minded organisations publicised Bahá'í principles, it did not help the small community establish its own clear identity. Although Smith and Momen make the point that emergent Bahá'í communities have hardly exhibited a distinctive "shared Bahá'í culture", since most of their members were first generation converts, whose levels of commitment varied widely, a sense of "community" was partly conditioned by Bahá'í laws. Firstly, the injunction that Bahá'ís not enter partisan politics acted to sharply define Bahá'í discourse, both written and verbal. Nowhere in Australian Bahá'í literature, for example, does one find discussion of national or even state political issues, and this absence could easily be mistaken for lack of interest. Similarly, the injunction to avoid habit-forming drugs, and totally abstain from alcohol, conditioned social life, and invariably required transformations in the convert's social relations. But whereas neither these, nor any other Bahá'í laws, were intended to isolate Bahá'ís from the wider society, their import was great. Shoghi Effendi described the Bahá'í attitude as "liberal, and broad-minded", but warned against spending too much time on subjects with "no direct bearing on the Cause". He counselled the Bahá'ís several times to focus their meetings on Bahá'í topics, suggesting in one letter that special emphasis be placed on

the relation of the Bahá'í principles and teachings to our present world problems with the purpose of pointing out the Bahá'í solution to the social, economic, political and religious evils of the time.

It appears that Shoghi Effendi's concern that the Australian Bahá'ís were diffusing their energies in different directions prompted him to direct Mrs Keith Ransom-Kehler to Australia. Ransom-Kehler found, to her "intense amazement" that members of the Melbourne assembly were "not Bahá'ís at all", since they had "all sorts of reservations", including Mrs Richards, who insisted that regular church-goers were "just as much value in establishing the Kingdom of God as Bahá'ís". Although she spoke before various branches of the Theosophical Society, Ransom-Kehler's main purpose was to instruct Bahá'í communities in Bahá'í administration, and to consolidate the Local Assemblies preparatory to the formation of a National Assembly.

As Shoghi Effendi made clear to the Australian Bahá'ís, Local Assemblies had more than just local significance. They were the basis on which the National Assembly could be formed, and it was on the basis of National Assemblies similarly established in a number of countries that the Universal House of Justice could eventually be established. They were, no matter how remote their location, and no matter how humble or obscure their members, the basic component in the Bahá'í administrative system. By 1934 Local Assemblies had been re-established in Adelaide, Sydney and Auckland, and smaller groups existed in Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane and Hobart. The total number of Bahá'ís stood at between 70 and 80:


Note: the formatting for this table was lost in this online version;
I'm not sure what the first column of numbers signifies. [-J.W., 2011]

Numbers associated with
Bahá'í groups (approx.)
Size at 1934

Discussion on the formation of a National Assembly quickened once Clara Dunn returned from pilgrimage in Palestine in 1932, with instructions from Shoghi Effendi to urge the Australian and New Zealand Bahá'ís to establish a National Assembly on the basis of the three Local Assemblies then existing - Auckland, Sydney and Adelaide. The Adelaide Assembly established a committee to study the "Will and Testament" of 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi's letters to the North American Bahá'ís, published as Bahá'í Administration. In addition, it's members wrote to Shoghi Effendi for his guidance in the matter, and to the Britain and North America to enquire about legal procedures. Sydney and Auckland Assemblies were asked to establish similar committees to study the issue, and to treat the matter as urgent, in the hope that the National Assembly might be formed in 1933.

But whereas Sydney and Auckland Assemblies were prepared to establish the National Assembly as soon as possible, Adelaide insisted on waiting for Shoghi Effendi's reply. When his response came in December 1932 asking that the Assemblies consult on the feasibility of establishing a National Assembly which would function successfully, Adelaide opted for caution, and argued that shortness of time, lack of finance, and the great distances involved, prohibited the National Assembly's early formation. Sydney's more bustling style was to refute all arguments for delay and to suggest 1934 as the latest date by which the National Assembly should be formed. Auckland Assembly favoured an early date, and Adelaide eventually relented. Sydney was chosen as the venue for the first convention, and the National Assembly elected in May 1934 by the Bahá'ís of Australia and New Zealand became the eighth in the Bahá'í world.

At the Guardian's suggestion a total of nine delegates, whose responsibility it was to elect the nine members of the National Assembly, were allocated equally between the three Local Assemblies. From Adelaide came Robert Brown, Hilda Brooks and Silver Jackman; from Auckland, Ethel Blundell, Margaret Stevenson and Emily Axford; and from Sydney, Hyde Dunn, Oswald Whitaker and Jane Routh. Seven of these nine delegates were elected to the first National Assembly. Until 1947, they formed the core of the National Assembly, and laid the administrative foundations for the Bahá'í communities of Australia and New Zealand. There were never less that five women on the National Assembly before 1947, and in some years as many as seven.

Between 1934 and 1944 the secretariat of the National Assembly functioned from Adelaide. The Bahá'ís on the Local Assembly in the South Australian capital had proven themselves as adept administrators, and Robert Brown, a Scots immigrant and storeman; Silver Jackman, who operated a guest house; and Hilda Brooks, from a genteel rural family, functioned as a stable National executive. As first secretary, Hilda Brooks carried much of the administrative load, and engaged her sharp mind, and a desire for efficiency and order, in the task of building a national community from disparate and geographically remote Bahá'í communities. In addition to her work as National Secretary, Brooks spoke regularly at Adelaide's public meetings, wrote articles for newspapers and for the Bahá'í publications, Bahá'í Quarterly and Herald of the South, and travelled inter-state to prosecute similar work in Brisbane, Broken Hill, and Melbourne.

Prior to the formation of the National Assembly, the Local Assemblies had taken different views on the matter of enrolling new members. When Adelaide had first suggested the need for at least a membership card, for administrative purposes, Auckland warned that it would be the first step toward "dogma and ritual". Clearly, some Bahá'ís were influenced by their backgrounds in the metaphysical movements. Having previously rejected ecclesiastical forms of religion, some hoped the Bahá'í community might remain an informal gathering of people interested in progressive thought.

With the formation of the National Assembly, however, the character of the Bahá'í community in Australia changed from that of a "movement" toward a more codified religious body. It was decided that investigators and applicants for enrolment in the Bahá'í community had first to remain in association with Bahá'ís for one year, before meeting with a Local Assembly, which would decide if the applicant was sufficiently versed in the laws and teachings to be admitted as a voting member. The National Assembly possessed the authority to remove the "voting rights" of members who repeatedly transgressed Bahá'í laws.

The National Assembly's first task was to assure the Local Assemblies of its administrative ability, and of the efficacy of the evolving Bahá'í administrative order. The Adelaide, Sydney and Auckland Assemblies at first expected the National Assembly to consult with them before making major decisions. They had been functioning since the 1920s and believed themselves to be more experienced in Bahá'í administration than the National Assembly. Consequently, the National Assembly at first shared with Local Assemblies copies of its minutes and resolutions, until advised by Shoghi Effendi that it was unnecessary to do so.

There were in addition several positive developments. In 1936 the National Assembly established its newsletter, the Bahá'í Quarterly, and in 1938 a "summer school" was first held on a property recently acquired for the purpose by the Boltons, at Yerrinbool, 70 miles (100 kms) south of Sydney. Activities were organised in the state capitals by Local Assemblies. Rooms were rented in the centre of the city, and meetings for the public were advertised. In Adelaide, Hilda Brooks gave a public lecture on the first Sunday of each month. Mid-week meetings were held for "newcomers" and for a healing group.

In Sydney three meetings were held in a city room each week, and Bahá'í books were placed in public libraries. Contact was maintained with several "isolated believers", including Emily Eastgate, who worked as a nanny on pastoral properties, first in central Queensland, and later, near Broken Hill; and Vader Fraser-Paterson, who had met Martha Root in 1924, and who lived a lonely Bahá'í existence in Broken Hill for three decades before moving to Sydney.

The vast distances between Australia's major population centres inhibited the development of close friendships among the Bahá'ís. Perth is 2000 kilometres by sea from Adelaide, and a further 800 kilometres from Melbourne. On the east coast, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne are situated at roughly 800 kilometre intervals. The few Bahá'ís in Perth, Hobart, and Brisbane, were only occasionally visited and relied mostly on communication by post. These distances, not only on the Australian continent, but between it and New Zealand, across the Tasman Sea, prevented the National Assembly from meeting regularly. Decisions had to be made through regular correspondence. Similarly, the prohibitive cost of inter-state and trans-Tasman transport in the 1930s affected the holding of National convention. Conventions were not held in 1935-36, and 1938, because the Australian and New Zealand Bahá'ís felt they could not bear the travel expenses. After a Sydney convention in 1937, and cancellation of a 1939 convention in favour of preparation for Martha Root's second visit, war-time restrictions prevented the holding of conventions until 1944. Although the Perth Assembly elected delegates to National Convention between 1937 and 1942, they would not have been able to afford the travel expenses, had conventions been held. The distances also affected the National Assembly, and no meeting between 1937 and 1944 was fully attended.

War-time regulations had an adverse effect on Bahá'í activities, but whereas other organisations of similar size ceased to function "for the duration", the National Assembly found that for Bahá'ís "the way was still open". Whereas the National Assembly never knew that Martha Root had come under security surveillance during her 1924 and 1939 visits, its members were themselves questioned in Sydney, Adelaide and Hobart during routine investigations in 1940 by Federal Police of religious organizations' attitudes toward the Australian government. The realisation that the Australian government was completely unaware of the Bahá'í community and all that it stood prompted the National Assembly to make its first approaches to public office-holders. Prime Minister R.G. Menzies and all State Premiers were presented with copies of Bahá'í World VII (an international compendium of Bahá'í affairs, 1936-38). Two pamphlets, "A brief statement of the Bahá'í attitude to war" and Emily Axford's essay "The non-political character of the Bahá'í Faith", first read at 1937 National Convention, were produced for mass distribution.

While opposed to all warfare, and taking of human life, Bahá'í teachings required that the Bahá'í community remain loyal to government. In countries where conscription for military service was introduced, Bahá'ís sought non-combatant duties. In Australia, where military service remained voluntary, several Bahá'ís volunteered for service in medical corps. Mat Appleton and Jim Chittleborough from Adelaide, and Jim Heggie from Sydney, were the three Bahá'ís who left Australia's shores in uniform. Although the Australian Bahá'ís neither protested nor applauded Australian involvement in the Second World War, their attitude was not one of indifference. They regarded the war as an inevitable part of the "winding up" of a crumbling world order. Their role was to "hold aloft and undimmed the torch of Divine Guidance", and, to the extent that Shoghi Effendi believed that Bahá'ís could "proclaim [the war's] salutary consequences and demonstrate its necessary and vital role in the shaping of human destiny", the Bahá'ís agreed with the prevailing Christian view that the war would have a cleansing effect on society. Where the Bahá'í view differed from the orthodox was in the desired outcome: the clergy hoped for rejuvenated Christian nations, the Bahá'ís looked forward to a world commonwealth. Although neither appeared in the decade following the war, the Bahá'ís viewed the establishment of the United Nations as a step in the direction of a world community whose advent they awaited.

With the deaths of Hyde Dunn in 1941 and Oswald Whitaker in 1942, and the failure of most "new age" movements to revive after the war, the Bahá'í community's involvement with such movements as New Thought came to an end. Some Bahá'ís, schooled in the metaphysical movements, had embraced their new Faith in the 1920s with the expectation of achieving "perfect unity" in their deliberations and activities. Guy Inman, for example, secretary of the Sydney Assembly, had felt in 1935 that the Bahá'í community was as yet immature in its understanding of the "Mighty World Order destined to embrace the whole of humanity". He was appalled at what he regarded as its "lack of sincere understanding and real effort", and looked forward to "results more worthy of our Beloved Cause and a truer spirit of co-ordination and unity of purpose in [its] collective task".

Inman addressed the fundamental dilemma facing the Bahá'ís at the time. Unity of purpose was the acknowledged goal, but there were conflicting opinions about which steps to take at local level. Feeling the enormity of the task of establishing a "new world order", and burdened with the responsibility of carrying it out to the utmost of their ability, some Bahá'ís believed that progress would only come in proportion to the extent that they were able to transform their own lives. Robert Brown had suggested at the 1937 convention that the small number of Bahá'ís

cannot hope to see a great advance in membership until we ourselves have become perfected, and can so reflect to the outside world, the light that Bahá'u'lláh has bestowed upon us...Ours is a sacred trust that will only be perpetuated by our complete personal acceptance of the teachings, and a resolve to carry them into practical effort in our every-day life.

Viewed positively, this attitude encouraged a devout attitude toward the spiritual and social life of individual Bahá'ís. On the other hand, there were Bahá'ís who believed progress would only be made to the extent that Bahá'í law was upheld. This pre-occupation with legalism inhibited the functioning of the Bahá'í community in several ways. First, it affected the relationship between Local Assemblies and the National Assembly. Secondly, it affected the National Assembly's relationship with Shoghi Effendi. Furthermore, it resulted in protracted antagonism and bitter feuding between individual Bahá'ís which on occasion disrupted the functioning of the whole community.

To an extent, concentration on legal matters had been justified. The establishment of some legal status by the National Assembly and Local Assemblies had been necessary before they could, for example, hold property titles, or receive other forms of civil government recognition. On the other hand Shoghi Effendi's task, as head of the Bahá'í Faith, was often made more difficult by the tendency by the Australian Bahá'ís to doggedly pursue small administrative and legal details, and to hold to regional rather than a national and global perspective. Such attitudes were demonstrated by the events surrounding the emergence of the Yerrinbool "Summer School" property as the first "national" institution in the Australian Bahá'í community.

The Adelaide Assembly, and for a time even the National Assembly, regarded the property less as a national institution, than as a school for the East coast Bahá'ís, and determined to establish a school of their own. When Adelaide Assembly purchased its own summer school property, at Belair, in 1943, with the approval of the National Assembly but against the advice of Shoghi Effendi, the issue of leadership in the Bahá'í community was called into question. "The instruction that there is to be only one summer school in Australia", wrote National Assembly secretary Dulcie Dive, "Renders the N.S.A. impotent and consultations futile": did the National Assembly have to accept the Guardian's instructions without question, or could it ask the Guardian to reconsider his decision? Shoghi Effendi replied through his secretary that,

Just as the National Assembly has full jurisdiction over all its local Assemblies, the Guardian has full jurisdiction over all National Assemblies; he is not required to consult them, if he believes a certain decision is advisable in the interests of the Cause. He is the judge of the wisdom and advisability of the decisions made by these bodies, and not they of the wisdom and advisability of his decisions. A perusal of the Will and Testament [of 'Abdu'l-Bahá] makes this principle quite clear.

In the context of Shoghi Effendi's communication with National Assemblies, his correspondence with the Australian National Assembly was stern. All Bahá'ís, whether as individuals or through Assemblies, had the right to appeal to the Guardian. In this instance, it was "the tone of recent communications from the N.S.A." which caused Shoghi Effendi regret. Possibly, the Australian Bahá'ís brought their cultural heritage of "larrikinism" and disregard for authority into the Bahá'í administrative system. There was no suggestion that the National Assembly was about to openly disregard Shoghi Effendi's instructions, but some members expressed their view that his instructions would have been different, had they had the opportunity to acquaint him further with their views.

Although there were few occasions on which the Guardian intervened in the National Assembly's decision making processes, he made several key requests that helped to shape the Australian Bahá'í community. In 1943 he announced that Sydney, rather than Adelaide, was to be the community's national administrative centre and assisted financially in the purchase of a "head-quarters" in Lang Road, Paddington; and in later years he directed that Assemblies, constituted on the basis of city boundaries, be broken into municipal areas, thus allowing for an increase in the number of Local Assemblies in the capital city of each state.

Expansion of the Bahá'í community, in terms of individual membership, and the multiplication of local communities and Assemblies, came only slowly and with considerable effort. Membership rose from about 74 in 1934, to approximately 181 in 1947; and annual enrolment rates varied from three new members in 1936-37 to twenty-five in 1944-45. Shoghi Effendi constantly encouraged efforts to expand the size of the community. His cable to the National Assembly, for instance, in 1943, the request that it "concentrate next meeting measures ensure multiplication Bahá'í centres", resulted in the National Assembly's formulation of a "teaching plan" through which efforts to promote the Faith were to be co-ordinated. Hilda Brooks, National Assembly secretary, reported some of the initial response to Shoghi Effendi

Mrs Dunn is in Brisbane, we have opened up a Bahá'í centre in Melbourne, visits have been made to Broken Hill and Canberra and country towns in New South Wales and South Australia, books placed in libraries, home meetings held and many contacts made. Miss Harcus of Adelaide responded to the appeal for settlers and has acquired a house at Pt. Elliot South Australia where she hopes to establish the Faith ...Radio talks have been given on stations in all states and we hope that more can be arranged.

A further letter from Shoghi Effendi urged that the attention of all Bahá'ís be focussed on the matter of teaching, which was the "ultimate object of the entire machinery of the Administrative Order", and on the "multiplication of Bahá'í groups, the steady increase in the number of local assemblies, the dissemination of literature, the dispersal of the believers, no matter how small their number, to important centres throughout the continent". Despite these activities, the community received such slight media coverage that the appearance of even adverse articles in the 1940s, while not "welcomed", was to some extent appreciated. In 1943 the Bahá'í teachings were denounced by a Catholic priest in the Mittagong Star, following press coverage of a summer camp held at the Yerrinbool Bahá'í school. In the same year a reporter requested an interview with Hilda Brooks, for an article in the Adelaide News, and a "scurrilous attack on the Faith" appeared in Max Harris' book, The Vegetative Eye. A concerted publicity campaign in 1944 to celebrate the first Bahá'í centenary produced greater media coverage in each state than at any time previously and marked the beginning of more frequent references to the Bahá'í community. Articles on Bahá'í appeared in Sydney and Hobart editions of Truth, in July 1945, and in the Melbourne Herald.

Also in 1945, the Rev. H. C. Gurney, who had been for some-time a missionary in Iran for the Church Missionary Society, published an article in the Adelaide Church Guardian in which the Australian Bahá'ís were regarded as being a "real menace",

since they seem to preach a better and more united and reformed sort of Christian idealism, whereas they inevitably lead to the complete confusion of moral values, wipe away all differences between a Christ and Muhammad by appealing to some mystical inner essence of truth, and undermine a man's judgement on the facts of Christ's life and teach as we have them in the gospels.

Ironically, the Bahá'ís would have agreed with some of this analysis. Belief that the major prophets occupied similar positions in a continuing process of Divine Revelation, essential to Bahá'í thinking, was the antithesis of conventional Christian theology. The challenge, and the response, were to be repeated in numerous media exchanges over the next several decades. Harold Fitzner, Chairman of the National Assembly, (d.1969) invited Gurney to his home for a discussion of the issues, and Hilda Brooks' reply to his article was published in Herald of the South. The National Assembly responded further by distributing God Passes By, Shoghi Effendi's survey of the first Bahá'í century (1844-1944), to all Australian Anglican Bishops and Archbishops. Articles such as Gurney's, felt the National Assembly, though not of a positive nature, were nevertheless publicity for the Faith, and made it known to a greater number of Australians.

In the 1940s the number of localities in which Bahá'ís resided began to increase, leading to the formation of new Assemblies in Yerrinbool in 1940, Caringbah in Sydney in 1942, and Albert Park in Adelaide in November 1946. The gradual expansion in the number of Local Assemblies had implications for the composition of the National Assembly. Between 1934 and 1946, when the number of delegates to National Convention remained at nine, (see figure 3), many of these nine delegates were re-elected annually to the National Assembly. Over a period of years a "new guard" of younger, or newer, Bahá'ís, emerged as protagonists of those whom they regarded as the "old guard", and a period of tension between the two groups was experienced by the far-flung, but small community.

When Harold Fitzner accused unidentified Adelaide delegates of "electioneering" at the 1946 convention (a contravention of correct Bahá'í procedure), the issue came to a head. A virtual "revolt" by four delegates, consisting of heated exchanges on the convention floor, a refusal by the four to accept the incoming National Assembly, and a flurry of telegrams between National Assembly members and Shoghi Effendi, had, apart from the personal animosities which ensued, a somewhat chastening effect on all the Bahá'ís involved.

Delegates to National Bahá'í Convention

Assembly 1934 1935 1936 1937 1938 1930 1940 1941 1942 1943 1944 1945 1946 1947
Sydney 3 3 3 2 2 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 6
Adelaide 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 4 3 7
Auckland 3 3 3 2 2 2 2 2 2 3 3 2 2 4
Perth 2 2 1 1 1 1
Caringbah 1 2
Totals 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 19

The immediate effect of commotion at the 1946 convention was a desire for greater representation at convention the following year. Shoghi Effendi agreed, and determined that the number of delegates be increased to 19. Although the increase in the number of delegates, and of Assemblies represented at National Convention, did result in changes in the membership of the National Assembly, an acrimonious phase in the development of the Australian Bahá'í community continued into the 1950s. A number of those involved in the tensions that erupted at the 1946 Convention (and in subsequent tensions between the Adelaide Local Assembly and the National Assembly, not discussed here), responded to Shoghi Effendi's call in 1953 for Australian Bahá'ís to take the Bahá'í teachings to islands in the Pacific, and to others off Australia's north-west coast. Harold and Florence Fitzner, for example, moved from Adelaide to Portuguese Timor, while Dulcie Dive, (d.1962) herself of part-Maori descent, settled in the Cook Islands.

The period 1920-1947 saw no rapid expansion by Bahá'ísm in Australian society, yet it included several significant developments. The consolidation of a new non-Christian religious movement by a small group of Australians untrained for the task, and often ill-equipped for it by temperament, was a rare accomplishment. That many of the first administrators were women was significant, given the traditionally subordinate position of women in matters of religion in Australian society. Whereas the National Spiritual Assembly convened in a co-operative spirit for a decade, the subsequent period, from 1944, when the secretariat moved from Adelaide to Sydney, until approximately 1954, was one of considerable tensions. One might wonder what the Bahá'ís could have achieved, had they not been prone throughout the late 1940s to dislocation from within, through interminable feuds between contending personalities.

This period in the evolution of an Australian Bahá'í community, despite its obscure and somewhat insular nature, was significant in several ways. Firstly, the small and widely dispersed Bahá'í centres survived the withering impact of the depression, and World War II, in a manner which other small religious and metaphysical communities such as New Thought and Theosophy did not. Second, many of the Bahá'ís who emigrated in the 1950s to take the Bahá'í teachings into the Pacific Islands, and to Southeast Asia, had joined the Faith's ranks by 1947, and had grown together through the struggles and difficulties encountered in establishing the first Assemblies, both Local and National. Other figures who later figured prominently in national and international Bahá'í affairs, including H. Collis and Madge Featherstone and Thelma Perks (d.1988), had also entered the community by this time. Finally, despite the fewness of numbers, and of Assemblies, the Australian Bahá'í community had established by 1947 a firm "outpost" of an organically evolving and steadily world-encircling religion. The next phase witnessed a series of nationally co-ordinated plans for the religion's internal development and external expansion.

The slow rate of numerical expansion in Australia has been referred to. By 1953 there were 12 Local Assemblies and a total membership of approximately 400 (including New Zealand). By 1973 there were in Australia 61 Local Assemblies and a membership of some 1800. In 1986 there were 152 Local Assemblies, a total of 432 localities, and a membership of between 4 and 5 thousand. Given the fact that the Bahá'í vision of a united world remained intact, and that Bahá'í communities in western countries such as Australia survived a period of complete obscurity, and episodes of internal stress, examination of their subsequent progress will no doubt focus on their efforts to convert idealistic aspirations of a one-world community into effective social action.


Note: footnote numbers have been lost in this online version.

This paper was first presented at the 12th annual conference of the Australian Association for the Study of Religion, St Hilda's College, University of Melbourne, August 1987. The title comes from Loulie A. Mathews, "The Outposts of a World Religion by a Bahá'í Traveller: Journeys Taken in 1933-1934-1935", n.p., n.d.

Recent surveys of religion in Australia include Michael Hogan, The Sectarian Strand: Religion in Australian History, Penguin, (Australia 1987); H.R. Jackson, Churches and People in Australia and New Zealand 1860-1930, Allen & Unwin, (New Zealand 1987). The role of other religious traditions has been noted in Ian GIllman (ed), Many Faiths One Nation: A Guide to the Major Faiths and Denominations in Australia, William Collins (Sydney, 1988), and "Religion in Australia: Responses to Patrick O'Farrell", Australian Religion Studies Review vol 1: no 1, April 1988.

Tess van Sommers, Religions in Australia, Rigby (Adelaide, 1966); Graham Hassall, "The Bahá'í Faith", in Ian Gillman (ed), Many Faiths One Nation, and "Persian Bahá'ís in Australia", in Abe Ata (ed), Religion and Ethnic Identity: An Australian Study, vol.II, (Melbourne, 1989).

see Moojan Momen, (ed) The Bábi and Bahá'í Religions, 1844-1944: Some Contemporary Western Accounts, George Ronald (Oxford, 1981); Moojan Momen, "The Social Basis of the Babi Upheavals in Iran (1848-53): A Preliminary Analysis", International Journal of Middle East Studies, 15(1983), 157-83; Roy Mottahedeh, The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran Simon & Schuster (USA, 1985); Muhammad Afnan & William S. Hatcher, "Western Islamic Scholarship and Bahá'í Origins", Religion 15(1985), 29-51; Dilip Hiro, Iran Under the Ayatollahs, Routledge & Kegan Paul (London, 1985); Vanessa Martin, Islam and Modernism: The Iranian Revolution of 1906, (London, 1989).

see, eg, Peter Smith and Moojan Momen, "The Bahá'í Faith 1957-1988:A Survey of Contemporary Developments", Religion, vol 19, January 1989. For a full description of Bahá'í origins and beliefs, see Peter Smith, The Babi and Bahá'í Religions: From Messianic Shi'ism to a World Religion, Cambridge University Press, (Cambridge, 1987); also, William S. Hatcher and &. Douglas Martin, The Bahá'í Faith: The Emerging Global Religion, Harper & Row, (U.S.A. 1985).

Peter L. Berger, "From Sect to Church: A Sociological Interpretation of the Bahá'í Movement", Unpublished Phd, New School for Social Research, New York, 1954.

Farhad Kazemi, "Some preliminary observations on the early development of Babism", Muslim World, vol. 63, 1973; Kurt Greussing, "The Babí Movement in Iran 1844-55: From Merchant Protest to Peasant Revolution", in Janos M. Bak & Gerhard Benecke (eds), Religion and Rural Revolt, (Manchester, 1982).

Vladimir Minorsky, "Iran: Opposition, Martyrdom and Revolt", in G.E. von Grunebaum, (ed) Unity and Variety in Muslim Civilisation.

Malcolm E. Yapp, "1900-1921: The last years of the Qajar Dynasty", in Hossen Amirsadeghi, (ed) Twentieth Century Iran, (London, 1977), p2.

Peter Smith, "Motif Research: Peter Berger and the Bahá'í Faith, pt.1", Religion, vol.8 (1978), p215.

Many of these have been printed individually in English translation, as well as in compilations, eg, Writings of Bahá'u'lláh: a compilation, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, (New Delhi, 1986), 717pp. Bahá'u'lláh's tablets to such European leaders as Napoleon III, Czar Alexander II, Queen Victoria, Kaizer Wilhelm I, Sultan 'Abdu'l-'Azíz, the Emperor Franz Joseph, Pope Pius IX, and the "Rulers of America", are collected as The Proclamation of Bahá'u'lláh, (Haifa, 1972).

Shoghi Effendi, World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, (Wilmette, 1938), XI-XII.

By convention, he is referred to as Shoghi Effendi.

Denis Maceoin, "From Babism to Bahá'ísm: Problems of Militancy, Quietism, and Conflation in the construction of a Religion", Religion, 13(1983), 219-255. Wach regards Babism as being "more than (a) reform movement", Joachim Wach, Sociology of Religion, (Chicago, 1971), 132. Bishop, the other hand, disregards the supra-national Bahá'í community, and describes Bahá'í as one of the "lesser groupings" within Islam, together with Yazdis, Druzes and Mandaeans: Eric Bishop, "Islam in the Countries of the Fertile Crescent", in A.J. Arberry (ed) Religion in the Middle East, vol II, (Cambridge, 1969).

Abdu'l-Bahá's appeals were later published as Tablets of the Divine Plan, Bahá'í Publishing Trust (Wilmette, 1977). Australia was mentioned in his letters of 11 April 1916, 19 April 1916, and 15 February 1917. The Dunn's first years in Australia are described in Graham Hassall, "The Bahá'í Faith in Australia: Some notes on John and Clara Hyde Dunn", Proceedings of the Association for Bahá'í Studies, Australia, 1982; and "First and Finest", Herald of the South, July 1985.

Star of the West, 7:11 27 September 1916, 102. This fact appears not to be generally known: according to Janice L. McGourtny, "The Development of the Bahá'í Faith in Nevada", n.d., "the American Bahá'ís were inspired by these tablets [from Abdu'l-Bahá], and probably some of the earliest teachers to Nevada arose after receiving the first tablet to the Western States" (ts) United States Bahá'í Archives, Wilmette Illinois, (hereafter USBA). On the North American Bahá'í community see Robert H. Stockman, The Bahá'í Faith in America: vol 1: Origins 1892-1900, (Wilmette, 1985).

Dan Gregory and Patricia C. Ward, "Message at the Twentieth Anniversary of the Spiritual Assembly of Walla Walla", (tss, 1982, possession of the author).

Interview, Thelma Perks, Sydney, 1 August 1981.

On the lives of Clara and Hyde Dunn see O.Z. Whitehead, Some Bahá'ís to Remember, George Ronald (Oxford, 1983); also, Graham Hassall, "The Bahá'í Faith in Australia 1920-1934: Some notes on Hyde and Clara Dunn, Australian Bahá'í Studies Conference. Proceedings, 1983. In 1954 Clara Dunn was designated by Shoghi Effendi as a "Hand of the Cause", ie, an individual specifically charged by the Guardian with specific duties in the protection and propagation of the Faith.

"What the deepest and most earnest thinkers (were) seeking", Strong wished to illustrate, was "a Universal Religion": "Abbas Effendi - Towards Universal Religion". (mss in possession of the author). Strong's address was advertised in the Age, 16 April 1904, p15.

Australian Bahá'í Bulletin, no 41:1946, p13.

These included Gretta Lamprill, a Hobart nurse, and Ethel Blundell, of Auckland.

Margaret Stevenson, "History of the Bahá'í Faith in New Zealand", c.1940. MS 22.12.02. New Zealand Bahá'í Archives, Auckland (hereafter NZBA).

For other references to Bahá'í in Australia before 1920 see Graeme C. Rouhani, "The Australian Dawn", Australian Bahá'í Bulletin, June 1980, September 1980, and December 1982.

Shoghi Effendi, letter 25 April 1919, Star of the West vol.10:no.6, June 1919, p.24. Other references to Australia and New Zealand in the journal include a letter of 8 May 1919 from Shoghi Effendi to the Bahá'ís of the British Isles SW 10:7 13 July 1919, 136; and a Tablet of Abdu'l-Bahá to the Bahá'ís of the Western States of the United States, SW 10:10, 8 September 1919, 199.

New Zealand Christian Movement. Report of the Commission appointed to study the problems of the Pacific in relation to the W.S.C.F. Conference at Manila in January 1927. n.p., 1927.

Concerning the impact of World War I on Australian attitudes toward the churches, see Michael McKernan, Australian Churches at War: Attitudes and Activities of the Major Churches 1914-1918, (Sydney and Canberra, 1980).

In 1922 Dr. Seton's Melbourne New Thought Centre was housed at 145 Collins St. See the Argus, 1 July 1922, p13; 5 July, p17; 1 September, p8, 21 October, p12.

See Charles S. Braden, Spirits in Rebellion: The Rise and Development of New Thought, Southern Methodist University Press, (Dallas, 1977).

Joe Roe, Beyond Belief: Theosophy in Australia 1879-1939 (Sydney, 1986), 2.

Hyde Dunn to F. Mazindarani, 15 July 1923. Hyde Dunn Papers. Australian Bahá'í Archive, Sydney. (Hereafter ABA). The Archive, located at the Bahá'í House of Worship, Ingleside, is listed in the Australian Historical Records Register (no. 01364) It includes material (40 metres) relevant to the establishment of the Bahá'í Faith in Australia (approx. 1900-1988), including minute books, committee reports, annual reports, newsletters, registers, correspondence files, financial reports, publicity files, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, diaries, films, negatives and slides, and is accessed through a card index. Special access is available by contacting the Historical Records Office, National Library of Australia. Materials from the archives used in this paper refer to box and bundle numbers, or to specific collections.

Hyde Dunn to Haifa, 27 June 1923. Hyde Dunn Papers, ABA.

Hyde Dunn Papers, n.d., ABA.

Euphemia E. Baker Papers, n.d., ABA. Miss Ruby Beaver, who had arranged that Hyde Dunn address the meeting, became a Bahá'í at the same meeting. See Graham Hassall, "Effie Baker: An Australian Woman", Proceedings of the Association for Bahá'í Studies, (Perth 1986); also, "Pioneer in the Picture", Herald of the South, April 1986.

Clara Dunn to Ella Cooper, 19 March 1923. San Francisco Bahá'í Archives.

The Melbourne Bahá'ís Mrs Henderson and Mrs Paterson may have met the Dunns at a meeting of the Brunswick Spiritualistic Forum, where Hyde lectured in July 1925 on "God's Divine Plan Unfolding Through the Ages", reported in Melbourne's Age, 18 July 1925, 12. Other meetings in Melbourne were advertised in the Age, 5 July 1924, p.10; and 4 October 1924, p.22; 18 July 1928, p12..

Interview, 14 December 1976. (in possession of author)

E.S.G. Bowes, "Percy Meade Almond - In Memoriam", & Albert Benson, "Gretta Stevens Lamprill - In Memoriam", Bahá'í World XV (1968-73), (Haifa, 1976), 489-90; 534-5.

Emily Mary Axford, "Bahá'í Historical Record", n.d. ABA.

Following which, due to her success, Clara Dunn was not re-invited to address that platform: Rose Hawthorne, interview, 23 February 1981.

Merle Heggie, interview, Sydney, 7 February 1981.

Bertha Dobbins, interview, Adelaide, 24 February 1981.

The figures for tables 1 and 2 have been calculated from correspondence for the period.

Margaret Dixson, Sydney Local Assembly, to National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada, 8 March 1927. United States Bahá'í Archives, Wilmette, Illinois. (hereafter USBA).

Amy Wilkins to Dorothy Dugdale, 1930. 0068/0017, ABA. Eloise Greenlaw, in Woodbridge Tasmania, found that neighbours were "so weary with overwork and coping with dilapidated fences and unshod horses" that they didn't have time to read about what they regarded as her "lovely hobby". E. Greenlaw to National Assembly, 19 October 1945. 0464/0168. ABA.

Shoghi Effendi to Major Norman McLeod, 19 April 1925, Shoghi Effendi Papers, ABA.

Bertram Dewing, "Impressions of the first days of the Faith in New Zealand", ts, n.d. NZBA.

Siegfried Schopflocher, Bahá'í News, July-August 1925, 3.

For Melbourne, see the Age, 16 August 1924, p10, 30 August, p11; Mabel Garis, Martha Root: Lioness at the Threshold, (Wilmette, 1983).

Adelaide Assembly, "Minute Book 1923-1927", 0543/0173. ABA.

Adelaide Assembly, "Minute Book 1923-1927", 29 May 1926. ABA.

Ransom Kehler's Australian visit was reported in Bahá'í News 58:7, January 1932, and Herald of the South, October 1931.

Keith Ransom-Kehler to Shoghi Effendi, 5 March 1932. ABA.

In July 1938 the Boltons offered a public lecture in Sydney on the "Ideology and history of the Bahá'í Movement:its influence for world peace and unity", as well as "recent observations in American and Europe and of the rapid development of this remarkable movement", Sydney Morning Herald, 30 July, 1938.

"The Reminiscences and Experiences of Amy Florence Wilkins of the Wonderful Bahá'í Revelation", (ts) M77 SC/1 (USBA); Wilkins' involvement in the Lake Macquarie branch of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom is described in Eleanor M. Moore, The Quest for Peace (As I have known it in Australia), Wilke & Co., Melbourne, 1949(?).

Jill Roe, Beyond Belief: Theosophy in Australia 1879-1939, New South Wales University Press, (Sydney, 1986). Bessie Rischbeith, "The story of Tahireh", The Dawn, (Women's Service Guild of Western Australia), 15 February 1939. Mrs Rischbeith had contact through the women's movement, with Mrs Mary Juleff and Jessie Henderson in the years prior to their involvement in the Bahá'í community. See, Bessie Rischbeith Papers, MS2004, Australian National Library.

H. M. Balyuzi, 'Abdu'l-Bahá: The Centre of the Covenant of Bahá'u'lláh, (Oxford, 1971), 152.

Jack Bean to National Assembly, 4 August 1949. 0465/0168. (ABA)

National Assembly to Jack Bean, 28 May, 1946. 0465/0168. (ABA)

National Assembly to Vada Fraser-Paterson, 28 January 1936. 0464/0168. ABA.

Melbourne Assembly "Unity Letter", 17 May 1926. Western Australian Bahá'í Archives, Perth (hereafter WABA).

Clara Dunn to Gretta Lamprill, 2 December 1925. Clara Dunn Papers, ABA. Also, "Mrs Rose, In Memoriam", Bahá'í World V (1932-34), 130.

Bertha Dobbins, "History of the Bahá'í Faith in Victoria from 1922 to 1928", (mss), n.d., p.3. ABA.

Age, 18 March 1939, 15; Dorothy Scott, The Half Way House to Infidelity: A History of the Melbourne Unitarian Church 1853-1973, Unitarian Fellowship of Australia (Melbourne, 1980), 46.

Sydney Assembly to Adelaide Assembly, 23 April 1934. 0068/0017, ABA.

Miriam Dixson, The Real Matilda: Women and Identity in Australia 1788 to 1975, Penguin, (Australia, 1978), 186. Gender based differences in educational opportunities within the Shann family are examined in Miriam Dixson, "Women and Change: A Case Study in the Migrant Colonial Experience", Australian Bahá'í Studies Conference, Proceedings, 1987. On the life of Margaret Dixson see Graham Hassall, "Australian Women and Religious Change: Margaret Dixson and the first Melbourne Bahá'ís", Proceedings of the Association for Bahá'í Studies, Australia, 1988.

Margaret Dixson to USA and Canada National Assembly, 14 November 1926. (USBA).

Smith and Momen, op. cit., 86.

Shoghi Effendi wrote that Bahá'ís supported the principles enunciated by Bahá'u'lláh, rather than of specific political parties, and that support by individual Bahá'ís of differing political parties (eg, living in different countries), would have been counter-productive. This essentially meant that Bahá'ís contributed to the life of their country as loyal citizens, rather than as political activists, and - at the risk of appearing "aloof" from current problems and issues - contributed to society by establishing an international community patterned on Bahá'u'lláh's principles for establishing a future "world order": Shoghi Effendi, Bahá'í News, no.72, April 1933, p3; World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, (Wilmette, 19..).

Shoghi Effendi to a Sydney Bahá'í, 25 June 1932. Shoghi Effendi Papers. ABA.

Ransom-Kehler, "Australian Diary", 8 April 1931, mss, (USBA).

"Wherever we may go this is the first platform open to us", "A Survey by Keith Ransom-Kehler", Bahá'í Centenary 1844-1944: A Record of America's Response to Bahá'u'lláh's Call to the Realisation of the Oneness of Mankind, NSA of the United States and Canada, (Wilmette, 1944), 181. Like Root, Ransom-Kehler spoke on radio. On at least one occasion she was asked to change her radio topic from Bahá'í to "home decoration" - her profession in New York.

Figures have been calculated from correspondence files for the period.

Adelaide Assembly (Hilda Brooks) to the National Assembly, United States and Canada, 3 September 1932. 0202/0060. ABA.

Adelaide Assembly to Sydney and Auckland Assemblies, 19 May 1933. 0252/0062. ABA.

Sydney Assembly to Adelaide Assembly, 4 June 1933. 0068/0017, ABA.

Members of the first National Spiritual Assembly were: Mr Robert Brown (chair), Miss Hilda Brooks (sec), Mr Percy Almond (treas), Mrs Silver Jackman, Mr A. Ostwald Whitaker (vice-chair), Mr Hyde Dunn, Mrs Charlotte Moffitt, Miss Margaret Stevenson, Miss Ethel Blundell. The 1934 convention was first reported in Herald of the South, 19 July 1934, 7-9.

See Graham Hassall, "Women in an Advancing Civilisation: Hilda Brooks and the Australian Bahá'í Community", The Role of Women in an Advancing Civilisation, Australian Association for Bahá'í Studies, 1989 (forthcoming).

Smith has identified in the North American context a polarisation within the Bahá'í community, between those who saw the "Bahá'í movement" as "loosely knit, inclusive, spiritual philosophy infiltrating the existing religions", and those who recognised the Bahá'í religion as an independent, revealed religion favouring organisation, doctrinal controls, and "epistemological authoritarianism": Smith, Babi and Bahá'í Religions, op.cit., 112-13.

Minutes of the first National Spiritual Assembly Meeting, 22 May 1934. NSA Correspondence 1934-1938. 0268/0070. ABA.

That is, the privileges of participating in Assembly elections, and of attending feasts, the principal gathering of the Bahá'ís of a particular area, held on the first day of each Bahá'í month.

"Adelaide Spiritual Assembly Report to the NSA Bahá'í Year 1935-1936", 0268/0070. ABA.

Bahá'í Quarterly, no.17, October 1940, p.2.

A369. Australian Archives, Canberra. An index at the Federal Government Archives contains evidence that a file once existed for both dates, but the contents of the file are reported as having been lost or discarded during transfer between old and new government intelligence organisations. Graeme Potter notes that Martha Root was given less access to public speaking platforms and newspaper coverage during her 1939 visit, "Dawn in the West: The Bahá'í Faith in Western Australia 1924-1957", 50. (mss, author's possession), raising the possibility that editors were "warned off" coverage of her activities.

Bahá'í Quarterly, 17, October 1940, 2.

Shoghi Effendi, quoted in Bahá'í Quarterly, 16, July 1940, 1.


According to Charles Braden, World War II took a heavy toll on New Thought in Australia, noting that it's "...combined Australia and New Zealand Picture was far more colorful before those world wars", Charles S. Braden, Spirits in Rebellion: The Rise and Development of New Thought, 493.

Guy Inman, Sydney Assembly to NSA, 11 December 1935. 0268/0070. ABA.

Bahá'í Quarterly, 3, April 1937, 3.

After several years of effort, the National Assembly obtained incorporation in August 1944 under the provisions of the Religious, Charitable and Educational Trusts Act 1908. National Assembly to Shoghi Effendi, 18 August 1944. Shoghi Effendi Papers. ABA.

In 1945 Shoghi Effendi wrote, through his secretary, that "the united efforts" of the Bahá'ís were required and that they had to "fix their eyes on the abject misery of humanity and, forgetful of their own limitations, deliver the teachings to their own countrymen", Shoghi Effendi 13 March 1945, Letters from the Guardian to Australia and New Zealand 1923-1957, (Sydney 1970), 53.

See Graham Hassall, Yerrinbool Bahá'í School 1938-1988:An account of the first fifty years, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, (Canberra, 1988).

National Assembly (Dulcie Dive) to Shoghi Effendi, 13 April 1945. Shoghi Effendi Papers. ABA.

Shoghi Effendi to National Assembly, 13 May 1945. Letters from the Guardian, 55.

Shoghi Effendi to National Assembly, 8 August 1945. Letters from the Guardian, 57.

An Australian expression suggesting disobedience, or unruliness.

These figures are calculated from Bahá'í Quarterly issues between 1936 and 1947. Figures for the period 1920-36 have been calculated from correspondence for the period.

Bahá'í Quarterly, 27, April 1943, 2.

National Assembly (Hilda Brooks) to Shoghi Effendi, 17 January 1944. Shoghi Effendi Papers. ABA.

Shoghi Effendi, 13 March 1945, Bahá'í Quarterly, 36, July 1945, 12.

Bahá'í Quarterly, no 28, July 1943, p3.

H.C. Gurney, "Bahá'ísm: A Menace to Christianity in Australia", Church Guardian, 1 April 1945.

National Assembly to Shoghi Effendi, 15 June 1945. Shoghi Effendi Papers. ABA.

Later known as Sutherland Assembly.

These have covered the periods 1947-53, 1953-63, 1964-73, 1973-79, and 1979-86.

"Annual Report of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Australia and New Zealand, Bahá'í Year 110." (1953-54).

"Annual Report by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Australia Incorporated for the Year BE 129". Barrett's estimation of 10,200 Bahá'ís in Australia in 1975 was optimistic, and the influx of Persian Bahá'í refugees since 1970, together with an increased rate of growth in the 1980s, makes difficult the task of projecting figures to the year 2,000 (Barrett projects a Bahá'í community of 20,000 (.01% of the population): David Barrett, World Christian Encyclopedia, (Oxford, 1982), 152.

Dept of Statistics. The Seven Year Plan 1979-1986. Statistical Report, (Haifa, 1986).

VIEWS11948 views since 2000-01 (last edit 2013-11-26 14:00 UTC)
Home Site Map Links Tags Chronology About Contact RSS