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COLLECTIONEssays and short articles
TITLEInside The Origins of the Bahá'í Community of Canada 1898-1948: A Personal Narrative
AUTHOR 1Will C. van den Hoonaard
ABSTRACTA detailed account of the author's experience researching, writing, and publishing this extensive historic study.
NOTES See also The Bahá'í Community of Canada: A Case Study in the Transplantation of Non-Western Religious Movements to Western Societies.
CONTENT Research for The Origins of the Bahá'í Community of Canada, 1898-1948[1] has given me immense satisfaction, not without some costs or pain, of course. The primary source of satisfaction is the near primal response of Bahá'ís everywhere to the minutiae of the many new findings regarding their own history. It seemed as if this history released the Bahá'ís from the burden of superficial knowledge, filled with unspoken generalizations. The book has lifted a major stone from the ground, revealing the earth teeming with all sorts of interesting life forms, namely the numerous stories, whether factual, mythical, or imaginary, about some of the most prominent Bahá'ís that are associated with the early days of the Bahá'í Faith in Canada. Those "interesting life forms" were also the stories and accounts of the many other Bahá'ís who for one reason or the other had chosen to remain invisible to the succeeding generations of Bahá'ís. I was startled by the thirst of contemporary Bahá'ís for early history and noted how some of that thirst was quenched by these early accounts which are now safely stored either in the book.[2]

Personal Relationships

The search for a Canadian Bahá'í history brought into its wake a whole set of personal relationships and an increasing awareness of my obligation to assist and encourage others in their quest for Bahá'í history. In some case, my research has even more deepened my relationships to my old friends whom I came to rely on for guidance and inspiration. No matter where the research stood, I always felt I was the student, the learner, nervous and hesitant about my findings, some contradictory, some humorous, some unexpected.

I also found many new kinds of friends. To use an old adage, they were "fellow travellers," and many of these were women researchers. What started as a lonely project, became one that involved a broader context of academic and professional relationships that were only a joy to have.

At a futuristic level, I hope that future generations of Bahá'ís will come to appreciate the herculean task of Deborah, my spouse, of putting "the book" (as the research became known around our household) always up front of her sacrifice and interest. During the ten years of research and writing, I do not recall even one moment of hesitation on her part. While the initial bleakness of my Canadian Bahá'í research might, perhaps, be engulfed by some sort of recognition on the part of the Bahá'í community, my wife Deborah will stand, I fear, in the shadow. I often think of the remarkable fact that Bahá'u'lláh blesses those who work invisibly for the greater good. The research and book, from my perspective, are emotionally charged with the more profound realization of her own sacrifice in this regard.

The story of the research for the book has the stuff of any good fiction: the serendipidous discovery of a 1917 letter from a Bahá'í in Saint John, New Brunswick, that was responsible for getting the whole research underway; a mysterious communication from Robert Frost's cousin, Joseph Frost, in Maine, who informed he had two boxes of papers and photographs of the very first Bahá'í in Canada (some 300 sepia and black and white photographs; and, "since you're from New Brunswick, aren't you, would you mind my giving you a few of Marion Jack's paintings?"); the fascination with oddities that dot our historical Bahá'í landscape ("very strange people, indeed?"); the nervous application of a governmental research grant (like a true Canadian); the nailbiting photo-finish of receiving support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada; and the miraculous assent by a select group of scholars who, through ASPP, have deemed the book manuscript (after six drafts) of sufficient scholarly value to merit a major publication grant. Wait, the landscape of Bahá'í historical research changes its shape suddenly: who were those politicians and suffragettes who, one time in their life laid claim to be a Bahá'í? Who was that well-known Group of Seven Painter whose painting will grace the front cover of the book and who others claim to have been a Bahá'í?

The Scholarly Response to the First Drafts

The "Preface" of the book (which never actually materialized) symbolized for me the difficulty of writing a book for a general, or scholarly, vis-à-vis Bahá'í audience. I asked one of our outstanding and most articulate early believers to write the Preface. In a matter of a few weeks, he produced an evocative and moving story of the drama of the early Bahá'ís. Hearing his sonorious first reading of the Preface over the phone is something that will always stay with me. His particular approach, I thought, would go over extremely well with a Bahá'í audience, because it cast the story in metaphors and figurative language familiar to Bahá'ís. I hesitatingly included this Preface in the draft submitted to the Aid to Scholarly Publications Programme (ASPP); it later appeared that in the first round of reviews of the manuscript, scholars had taken exception to the Bahá'í tone of the Preface which, they felt, also percolated throughout the whole manuscript. I subsequently, and regretfully, removed it from the newer drafts.

Serendipity and the Physical Layout of the Book

On the matter of the Group of Seven Painters, I must relate a charming account that eventually led to the adoption of the present book-cover, a Lawren S. Harris painting, entitled, "Decorative Landscape, 1917." After the book had gone through the cycle of two circles of Bahá'í readers, March and April 1993, my wife and I visited the National Art Gallery in Ottawa on occasion of our wedding anniversary on 24 April 1993. About half-way through the tour, we spotted a glorious, very-Canadian, painting, and I exclaimed, "That's the book's cover!" As you can see, the colours are vibrant. I rushed down to the Gallery's bookstore and picked up a few postcards of the painting. We learned that it had been in hiding for some 70 years and that it had been brought to light only weeks earlier. The following week, I had an urgent call from my good friend, Maureen Flynn-Burrhoe, a part-time curator and an artist, who pointed my attention to an article by Jack Schadbolt (1983) on the life of Lawren S. Harris, in which he claims that Harris was a Bahá'í. I have not been able to confirm Harris' allegiance to the Bahá'í Faith, but the story was good enough to decide, in my mind, that Harris' painting would be, indeed, the most appropriate one for the book. Several weeks later I wrote to Harris' son, Lawren P. Harris, asking for permission to use the painting. He returned the original letter to me after having penned the words, "Permission granted Re; above described reproduction request. With my best wishes, Lawren P. Harris. June 18, 1993."

There were two other components of the physical layout of the book, namely the photographs and the index. I realized from the start that there is no abundant supply of photographs of early Bahá'ís in Canada. As I visited Bahá'í archives and individuals, I photocopied the original photographs so that if I would need them later, I could get in touch with these sources for the originals. This does not always work. One major Bahá'í archive on Canada's West Coast informed me that after receiving my request for the originals, they could not find the photographs (and when I had had visited their archives earlier, they were very well organized, or so I had thought)--this explains the singular lack of photographs of Western Bahá'ís in the book. As a consequence, I had to fall back on making negatives of the photocopies that I had made during my earlier visits.

There were other photographs which I would have loved to be included in the book. I wanted photographs of Emeric and Rosemary Sala, but the Secretary of the relevant Bahá'í community had moved without leaving a forwarding address; a relative of the Salas was constantly on the road and when it came to handing in the photographs to Wilfrid Laurier University Press, she could not be reached in time. Dr. Rose Henderson, a prominent Canadian social reformer and an early Bahá'í, is someone else whose photograph could have embellished the book. My search for her photograph was futile. For some other photographs, I cropped individuals from the larger group photographs.

More importantly, I had to come up with a particular approach to the photographs in the book. I decided, therefore, to let the photos tell a story on their own. This meant arranging the photos in such a way that one could sense the Bahá'í history by just looking at the photos which would carry carefully worded captions that would so entice the viewer that he or she would feel obliged to read the main text itself. The set of photographs related to the earliest moments of Bahá'ís in Canada would highlight their forceful individualism and unique character traits; as we move through time, these sorts of photographs would be replaced by those that emphasize the emergence of the Bahá'í community, showing pictures of groups and local governing bodies.

In November 1995, the John Robarts Memorial Fund provided $1000 towards the cost of producing the photographs in the book--a most welcome gift, arranged through the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Canada. This meant that 38 photographs found their way into the book.

On New Findings or Insights

All these elements of my research have, I believe, changed me in some way. But the most profound facet involved my discovery of the great Jewish contribution to the early days of the Canadian Bahá'í community, the oft-unstated role and importance of women in Bahá'í history, the current difficult and lonely stage of old Bahá'ís, and the role of religious singleness (not a demographic term) in the life of a minority religion. I also discovered what made some communities grow, while others stagnated.

The Jewish contribution allowed me to understand the unique ways groups enter the Bahá'í Faith. Jews relied on their keen sense of justice and their literary inclinations that constitutes their contributions as Bahá'ís; those of Catholic origin spoke fervently of the "Truth" that made them become Bahá'ís; and the Protestants had a penchant for individual responsibility and the so-called twelve principles. In Canada, it was the entrance of Jews into the Bahá'í community in the 1920s that spurred the community to a more vigorous outreach to wider society, where it became more common to find not only topics of more secular and wider interest at Bahá'í meetings, but also the occasional non-Bahá'í speaker at such meetings. Moreover, these Jewish adherents were among the first to respond with enthusiasm and understanding to Shoghi Effendi's messages about the World Order of Bahá'u'lláh. Special mention should be made of Hand of the Cause Siegfried ("Freddie") Schopflocher, a humble man who revitalized, through his generosity and urgent attention and inspiration, the building of the House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois.

The role of women. Some must surely claim that I have become obsessed with figuring out their historical participation. Why is it that men are seven times more likely to get an article-length obituary in a Canadian Bahá'í news organ than women, despite the fact that more than 70% of the community across Canada were women? This realization has urged me to ask women readers of early drafts of the manuscript to look at ways my insights and conclusions, my tone, and my findings denoted an unwanted and unpleasant perspective that we men sometimes seem to express.

I arrived at a critical point in my conceptualization of the role of women in the early Canadian Bahá'í community when my perspective that, somehow, single women must have acted as barriers to the growth of the new religion, was replaced by the idea that their overwhelming presence in the Bahá'í community did shape the growth of the Bahá'í communitym but that such growth was not necessarily any worse or any better than under any other circumnstance. The fact that many single women were involved in technological, and sometimes managerial, positions allowed them to travel far and wide to spread the Bahá'í Faith across Canada. By far, the first pioneers and the first enrollees were women.

My other finding also relates to women in our community, but in our contemporary one. I found myself often interviewing the now older women who are living on the margins of the Bahá'í community. They lived in geographically isolating homes and apartments in big cities, were socially not drawn into the web of Bahá'í community life, and lived unacknowledged of their immense and unique contributions to the early life of the Canadian Bahá'í community.

In the waning hours of getting the book manuscript to the publisher, I found myself using the term religious singleness to refer to a peculiar phenomenon among minority religions in Western society: the existence of a single individual, who unlike the other members of his or her family, is the sole member of a minority religion. Moreover, the fewness of such believers is a city or town heightens their religious singleness. It is this religious singleness that is so characteristic in the establishment and maintenance of a non-Western new religious movement in our industrial society. Religious singleness determines the stature, the growth, size, and recognition of such a movement.

Finally, I felt impelled to do a "study-within-a-study" of early Bahá'í communities in Canada. With a wealth of documentary and oral material, I was able to reconstitute some of the factors that sustained fifteen Bahá'í communities across Canada. I developed a "diversity index" and other measures of growth or stagnation. The communities that grew, in short, were characterized by two things: a diversity of methods to propagate the Bahá'í Faith, and links of association with the wider community, and with like-minded organizations in particular. I also found that some communities consisted primarily of artists, others of families, and still others of exclusively women. One community had a membership of pioneers who virtually all were second-generation Bahá'ís (inexplicably that community died as soon as it was born).

All of these findings brought me a great deal to think about and allowed me to think more deeply about the social characteristics that, for a moment, determine the nature and growth of our religion in Canada. Like any new discoveries, such ideas produce many moments of joy.

Elements of Sadness

The work for "the book" has also been a source of some sadness. I grieve about how few Bahá'í documents have been passed on to the next generations (no doubt, the singleness, or the childlessness of many early believers, may have something to do with that). I was horrified on discovering the sad state of our Bahá'í archives. I was struck by the superficiality, the blandness, and the lack of "blood, flesh, sweat, and tears" in many of the published Bahá'í reports. But, there was, I believe, nothing that shook me deeper than examining `Abdu'l-Bahá's stay in Canada, and in Montreal in particular.

When the research was completed in the summer of 1992, I set out to write one chapter a month. I earlier had, in June 1989, configured six chapters. As I began writing, it took about a week to produce one chapter. I soon had the idea of writing 13 chapters. As I got nearer to the 13th chapter, I saw the possibility of writing 17. When I reached 17, I quickly readjusted my focus to even more chapters. I ended up with 24 chapters. The fact that the book now has 16, simply means that several chapters have been integrated into one. The most enduring struggle dealt with the chapters that recount `Abdu'l-Bahá's sojourn in this country.

To prepare for the two chapters on `Abdu'l-Bahá's visit to Canada, I had examined every possible written document and had collected a variety of personal stories surrounding his visit. I discovered that the French-language Press had also covered his stay in that city in 1912 but that the official Bahá'í publications had seemed to omit them. There were many other incongruencies, including the variable dates of his stay (there were, I recall, eight different dates indicated in the Bahá'í publications for his visit). When I visited Montreal several times to retrace `Abdu'l-Bahá's footsteps (ever keeping in mind the kind of weather that attended his stay in Montreal--it was cold and drizzly), I was saddened to see many of the sites associated with his visit were either burned down, had deteriorated, or had altogether disappeared. The many contradictions of information about his visit, the deplorable state of most of the places he visited, and the realization that of the 2,400 people who had seen and heard him, only four had stepped forward to become Bahá'ís--all of these things made the process of writing "his" two chapters painfully difficult and very time consuming.

Some Challenges Unique to Doing Research among Bahá'ís

Before undertaking the writing of the manuscript, I have found another time-consuming, but necessary task. By the time I started doing my interviews in the summer of 1990, I already had compiled a draft list of all people who were considered Bahá'ís between 1898 and 1948. I used the interviews not only to secure the details of the lives of the research participants themselves but also to have an opportunity to go over my initial list (which has now grown to ca. 555 names). I would start every interview by going over this list, name by name, inviting my interviewees to add their knowledge about a particular individual's religious background, place and date of "declaration," who was the Bahá'í teacher?, how many children? which ones became Bahá'ís?, how many times and where did the person move to? maiden name? occupation? ethnic or national background? etc.

It was only after I had conducted some 40 of these interviews that I realized how, by accident, I was able to derive otherwise inaccessible information. It was my general experience that when I proceeded to ask the individuals about what they felt were their contribution to the Bahá'í community, or some other facet of their lives that made a difference in someone else's, the interviewed Bahá'ís tended to be most modest in their replies. It was only after going over the list of 555 names that someone else would account another person's accomplishments or challenges. In that sense, Bahá'ís were not always entirely forthcoming about their own lives, but much rather spoke of someone else's.

The issues of bona fide challenges within the Bahá'í community (Bahá'ís call them "tests") were extremely difficult to ask about; any attempt to explain or even think about such community "tests" was considered either too painful, plainly forgotten, or regarded as a form of backbiting. As a consequence, many of the images presented seem to be either bland or rosy.

On a more scholarly level, but nevertheless still personal, I began to acknowledge the social intricacy of doing research, and Bahá'í research in particular.

Intellectual and Spiritual Obligations

I would like to describe the intellectual and spiritual obligations surrounding the book, as the "heart" of all my research and writing--I cannot conveniently separate these two main obligations.

Sociological Enquiry

I have constructed a particular narrative of our Canadian Bahá'í history. It is my interpretation of events, of documents, and what people have genuinely shared with me. I have placed two "bookends" around this narrative. Both the introductory and concluding chapters are typically sociological.


The "Gulliver" tale is about the scholarly review, by my peers and scholars. It begins by looking at the task of researching an hitherto undisclosed area. While it is easy to trace formally the beginning of my research adventure (namely an old letter in an archive), it is altogether much more difficult to pinpoint a time when the research is completed. The research is certainly not finished when one embarks upon the writing up of one's findings, because the analysis is on-going during this latter stage, forcing the author to return to the data or even embark on a new sidepath of research. The research stages may well be defined by a research proposal, but here, too, one must expect new turns in the plot. Can we consider the research finished when the first groups of readers--I had selected two circles of readers, composed of women and men, young and old, married and otherwise to read the first draft? What about the continuing stream of letters, documents, photographs that many were so kind enough to send me? These ensured that the research could not yet finish. What about the critical suggestions from a group of Canada's scholars who provided the means to have the research take new turns and twists?

I was desperate. I knew that I had to submit the book manuscript to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Canada for their review and consideration. At what point could I say, "This is it!" If the manuscript went prematurely to that body, would it be inappropriate to incorporate new elements into the book, to be brought on by further scholarly reviewers, by my publisher, and even by the marketing manager of the publishing house? All of these elements made me feel like Gulliver, with strings holding him down, tightening their grip as he struggled to move.

My task is over, the research is laid out, my findings haunted by uncertainty, but now beyond my control, and, I ask myself, will my more secure findings whether the inevitable questions that will come the book's way? Will my 600 footnotes, my 25-page list of published and unpublished materials, my citing from over 50 interviews, my odd collection of photographs protect me, protect the book?

Intended Audiences

This brings me to the final point of my personal reflections about the process of Bahá'í research: for whom did I write the book?

If it were finding only one audience, I could have found the right "tone" in writing the book. I recall starting my very first chapter in September 1992 with a reply to what I had thought was a simple question, "For whom would I be writing?: for Bahá'ís or social scientists?" I vividly remember staring at my keyboard and deciding that I would write for myself because I am a Bahá'í and a sociologist. My writing would have to satisfy me as I "represented" both audiences. And while this approach still generally holds true for the book today, my subsequent drafts of the manuscript would eventually show that the book had six kinds of audiences.

First, the individual Bahá'í. My sole purpose in submitting the first draft of the book to two circles of "ordinary" Bahá'í readers was to elicit their reactions and encourage them to submit ideas of what should or should not be included. I was delightfully surprised to see that all submitted written comments, which I then extracted and shared with all other members of the groups. We met over a working dinner where for many hours we discussed everything under the sun, including the title of the book. I cannot describe the impetus and the encouragement that this unique consultative process engendered. The attentiveness of these Bahá'ís, drawn from everyday life, made me believe I had a manuscript worth researching and writing. The writing style had to appeal to both the formally educated and "not-so-educated" element of the Bahá'í community. These categories are, I realize, artificial, but they forced me to put the manuscript into a narrative style, with details packed into the footnotes for those who wanted to explore the issues and sources more deeply.

Bahá'ís may well ask themselves the reasons why I, as a Bahá'í author, avoided capitalization of pronoun references to Bahá'u'lláh, the Báb, and `Abdu'l-Bahá. The reader should be made aware of the Bahá'í usage of capitalization when referring to the founders of religions, including the two founders of the Bahá'í Faith, namely the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh. Bahá'ís see no objection to others' not using capitalization, but may find it peculiar to see a Bahá'í scholar not using it. There are, after all, other researchers who echo the approach of respecting the research participants and their world views. They either wish to break down the power difference between the "researched" and the "researcher" (see, for example, Shulamit Reinharz, 1992: 180-86), or to avoid giving offense to the group under study--a principle which, after all, is entrenched in the sort of research policies advocated by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. The practice of capitalization to referring to the founders of religions is, after all, not uncommon in other scholarly works such as the The New Catholic Encyclopedia. Yet, the Bahá'í community permits references to the founders of their religion to be non-capitalized when the intended audiences are not members of their religion. I have adopted this practice in The Origins of the Bahá'í Community of Canada.

At the invitation of Suzanne and Julian Lebensold in Baie d'Urfé (west of Montreal), my family devoted a long weekend, in April 1993, to discussing a title for the book. Before this consultation, I had adopted Pearls in the Sand as a working title, until someone said that the title suggested the book was about the tar sands of Alberta! During that weekend at the Lebensolds, we combed through the Bahá'í writings and were particularly attracted to the Tablets of the Divine Plan[3] and the letters to Canadian Bahá'ís from Shoghi Effendi, Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith. No doubt, all possible titles were evocative, but also, from the perspective of a non-Bahá'í audience, quite obscure. For example, Children of the Half Light was a possibility, but there was nothing in the title that said that this was a scholarly study of the Bahá'í Faith. My ten-year old son, Jordan, suggested, Canada: A Tough Nut to Crack, given the slow growth of the Bahá'í Faith in this country. That title was very popular for at least an hour.

Second, I had to bear in mind the role of Bahá'í agencies and, most notably, the National Spiritual Assenmbly of the Bahá'ís of Canada. Given the embryonic nature of the Bahá'í community and attacks upon it by various groups in certain parts of the globe, it would be important to be as faithful as one can to giving an accurate rendering of the Bahá'í teachings, without engaging in apologetics or hagiography. Of the six audiences, this was perhaps one of the two most crucial. According to Bahá'í review process, the force of the National Spiritual Assembly's review dealt only to obvious factual inaccuracies, by omission or commission. These critiques were thorough, nevertheless, and only once did I feel obliged to make a minor, substantive change that involved an extract from an interview. This change really dealt more with providing the reader with the larger, social context of particular statements. All in all, I do not feel that these reviews and critiques offered suggestions that took away from the scholarly thrust of the manuscript.

Third. Research-granting agencies were, in many respects, another audience. Research-grant proposals express assertations, claims, plans, and hopes that the researcher must feel obligated to follow. A good researcher is also sensitive to the emergence of new data and insights not originally considered in the proposal. The original application secured me a grant of ca. $9,300, which was sufficient for my purposes.[4] The consequence of receiving public money meant that I could not write a book intended for Bahá'í audiences only (which had not been my intention anyway) and that the Bahá'í history had to be cast in terms and terminology which should be understood by the wider society. Many readers will, I am sure, know where in the manuscript I seemed to have strayed in the land of the Bahá'ís, of the other social scientists, or the wider society. I believe that while there is no easy resolution to such a dilemma--for such "mixed" writing--the resolution in any case can only be found by writing up the research.

This brings me to my fourth audience: the Bahá'ís who are scholars. In usual Bahá'í parlance, "Bahá'í scholarship," on the one hand, designates the kind of work envisioned by the Universal House of Justice for Bahá'ís, whether formally educated or not, in all walks of life, in their attempts to apply their knowledge of the Bahá'í teachings to the problems of society. "Bahá'í Studies," on the other hand, refers to the kind of work, for example, that my book entails: the study of a Bahá'í subject without immediate application to solving problems. I should preface my remarks by emphasizing that my following assessment of Bahá'í Studies stems from my own personal experience and may therefore unfairly reflect on Bahá'í Studies in general. What strikes me about studies undertaken by Bahá'ís is that it is hierarchical, male oriented, and quite diverse. It had never occurred to me that Bahá'í scholars represent a hierarchical structure that greatly determines the resources, the exposure, and the publication outlets of one's work. There appears to be a great divide between those who speak Persian and those who do not: some claim that unless one speaks Persian (and Arabic), no true Bahá'í studies can be undertaken. We also seem to make significant distinctions between those who are concerned about Middle-East history and the "rest." Another dividing line seems to separate the theological/apologetical approaches taken largely by European scholars as a sort of theological approach, as opposed to the more empirical work here in North America.[5]

What about the masculinity of Bahá'í studies? To be a scholar who perceives himself to be on the margins (working at a second-tier university, a sociologist, living in Atlantic Canada, working with non-Middle-East topics, a heavy reliance an empirical fieldwork, etc.) may give me a certain vantage point denied to others who are in the center of such studies. I have already alluded to the hierarchical framework of studies undertaken by Bahá'ís. Nineteenth-century mechanistic views predominate, where belief in objectivity is sacrosanct. It excludes research methodologies that advocate qualitative approaches and tends not to appreciate the scholarly contributions made by women scholars, particularly those who are perceived as "feminist." It is this "masculinist" approach that bothers those men who wish to "own the equality of women and men." The masculinist approach also entails a degree of secrecy in one's work--a replication of the old world order--while from the perspective of several scholars the spirit of cooperation and openess should be the norm.

Bahá'í Studies, for its size, is very diverse. One finds a refreshing diversity of perspectives, some grounded in the old scholarly traditions, but also those that are clearly scientistic, feminist, postmodernist, the "new" ethnographic, the narrative, "qualitative," and the deconstructionist, in addition to the descriptive biographies and "straight" history. I might also add another variant of scholarship undertaken by Bahá'ís: the applied vs. the academic. But because there are still relatively few scholars, all the tensions and problems associated with academic studies are greatly magnified among Bahá'í scholars. In addition to the tensions normally associated with a hierarchical, masculinist approach to scholarship,

These dimensions of Bahá'í Studies provide the larger context under which I researched and wrote the volume: they informed my steps along every which way and, like this particular presentation of my personal reflections, I imagine myself trying to defend and articulate my approach in this or that circle of Bahá'í academics.

Fifth. My scholarly peers, who are not Bahá'ís, constituted an important audience intended by the book for several reasons. I had wanted the book to build links of Bahá'í Studies with the larger, academic world, acquainting them with the nature and purpose of the Bahá'í community. I was also hoping that my sociological research on the Bahá'í community would reveal something of scholarly value to a broad segment of scholars involved with the study of religion and of social movements. The adoption of the book as a class textbook would be a bonus, of course, but I would be relying on reviews in scholarly journals for the wider dissemination of my findings. I should mention that on more than one occasion, before or while I undertook the research, a number of scholars had encouraged me to go forward with the study and that they saw nothing incongruent with the fact of a Bahá'í studying his or her own (national) Bahá'í community. Nevertheless, they did express a few reservations.

The early reception indicated to me that scholars in religious studies are very much bounded by empiricism, by their conservative outlook that lagged more than twenty years behind the frontlines of the new scholarship, and by their persistent refusal to see the extent to which their own "objective" views were deeply shaped by a Christian outlook. It is a group that wears their rows with religious authorities as proud badges. Qualitative research seems out of reach of some; needless to say, there are only a few women scholars in this field. On numerous occasions, I had to inform them that a phrase such as, "this is a study of the Bahá'í" is peculiar to us. It's equivalent to saying "this is a study of the Christian." It seems that designating a religion by a term not chosen by its followers signifies a misplaced objectivity, a snub, a declaration of the said religion's illegitimacy.

One of my colleagues in Atlantic Canada over the ten years of the project simply refused even the appelation "Bahá'í." That colleague phrased queries in the manner of, "How's the book coming along?" When that colleague learned that I had received a publication subvention from the Aid to Scholarly Publications Programme, that same colleague, for the first time, used the word "Bahá'í."

There were other criticisms.[6] They believed I set up an unnatural polarity between the sociology of religion and my writing as a committed believer. They advocated my coverting the chapters into a conceptual framework, organizing them around concepts or themes, rather than strictly chronological sequence. I would resolve the chronology/thematic debate by roughly retaining the chapters in the same order (although a few will be moved around), but emphasizing certain themes for the relevant period. After all, certain themes are time-dependent (e.g. boundary maintenance becomes more critical as a community achieves a particular stage of growth or consciousness of itself). Along the same lines, they found that I should lessen my emphasis on details of personalities. The use of surnames, rather than just first names of the early Bahá'ís, would also heighten the relevance of the manuscript as a sociological or scholarly document. The scholars also took issue with my criticism of their term cults which they ordinarily use to refer to new religious movements. I still find their use of that term deplorable and, as a consequence, I packed that whole discussion away in an endnote. Finally, they encouraged me to draw more on the sociological literature that would shed light on the development of the Canadian Bahá'í community.

Their criticisms continued: One Reader took issue with my observation that the spread of the Canadian Bahá'í community did not conform to what sociologists of religion have been saying about the prevalence of cults across Canada's geography. The ms and my discussion of various Bahá'í communities go only up to 1948. The Reader may have been quite right that the contemporary Bahá'í community in Canada follows the general sociological observation about sects and cults in Canada, but there is very little evidence that supports that fact before 1948. (The general sociological finding about new religious movements and cults in Canada is that they tend to proliferate more in Western parts of the country, where atheism and weakened religious conservativism prevails.)

The Reader, moreover, took exception to my statement that I spoke about the "recruitment of ordinary Canadians." Again, my book goes only up to 1948; the Reader cited the 1991 census as evidence that Bahá'ís are one of the best educated groups in Canada. (This might be true, although this type of census information is based on a 20% sample, excludes Indian reserves (where 1/4 of Canadian Bahá'ís reside); and due to the relatively small size of the Bahá'í population, a sample can easily skew the findings).

The two Readers also disagreed among themselves. The first Reader noted that I have done research outside my field and ventured into history, weakening the manuscript. The other Reader claimed, however, that my historical research methods were "sound."

Finally, the first Reader critiqued the fact that I had circulated the book ms to two circles of Bahá'í readers. With the increased importance of maintaining ethics in their research, researchers are increasingly sharing their findings and questions with their research "subjects." In my view, such a process often yields important new data and insights, discussions of which can be taken down in either footnote form or in the main text itself.

Along another dimension, I believe it is important to be as sensitive as possible to the question of gender in one's research. Hence, I have made sure that the circles of readers included both women and men. I have found it most helpful to receive the views of readers who are women, spotting this or that particular blind spot or bias on my part. Margrit Eichler's book on non-sexist research (1988) has, in particular, moved me to consider carefully such bias in research: circulating the ms was simply one way of fulfilling this particular goal.[7]

The sixth audience were the potential publishers themselves. At the very beginning of the research I had decided to go with an academic publisher outside the Bahá'í community. I wanted to make bridges and reach out. Through a colleague's recommendation, I contacted Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Their range of titles included those related to religious history. Its former director was singularly interested in the project and even suggested that I should send the manuscript for review to the National Spiritual Assembly of Canada. He thought that the story will be "fascinating, and certainly one that must be told." He also thought that it "would be important for Canadians to learn of the types of prejudices, etc., the Bahá'ís were exposed to" (Fizet, 1989). However, he also made it clear that the Press was "only interested in manuscripts that satisfy a peer review process without our having to aid in the development of the manuscript."

His successor, Ms. Sandra Woolfrey, was unflagging in her support of seeing the manuscript through to completion and through the peer-review process. By August 1993, I was ready to send the first formal draft to the WLUP and to ASPP. By the time she had provided many practical tips of how to prepare a manuscript for consideration by ASPP and how to deal with the criticisms of their Readers, I had already decided that I was morally bound to stay with them.[8]

The narrative of my book was strongly determined by the principal concerns of academic publishers in Canada. Scholarly books in Canada require subsidies. A sale of more than 600 copies is a runaway bestseller,[9] and the tone of such books must be cast in a manner that the general educated public can understand: it cannot be simply a believer's account of his or her own religion. The language must be more or less neutral.

Whatever shortcomings Bahá'ís might read into such an approach, there would be other gains. Younger Bahá'í scholars, who include a larger proportion of women than was previously the case, are now in a much better position than even my generation, let alone the generation before me of scholars to contribute both to Bahá'í Studies and their respective disciplines. Metaphorically speaking, I see the generation preceeding mine pointing in the direction of the top of a jungled mountain and saying, "Look, that's where we'll be someday!" Speaking for myself, I saw my duty as to make a start in cutting a path through this jungle, or perhaps just the beginning of such a path, to enable the next cohort of Bahá'í scholars to advance towards the top. From my perspective, here and now in Canada and in this phase of Bahá'í communities, I felt the need to establish the legitimacy of Bahá'í Studies by (1) securing research grants from non-Bahá'í sources for the purpose of doing Bahá'í research, and that such grants should be forthcoming from academic bodies and councils; (2) finding new empiricial ways, with new methodologies, to look at our struggling Bahá'í communities; (3) establishing a Bahá'í "voice" that was neither hagiographic nor too secular (knowing full well that criticisms might ensue from both scholars and Bahá'ís); and (4) making Bahá'í Studies more relevant to the wider society; this involved the use of non-Bahá'í means of distribution and more complete involvement with the concerns of surrounding scholars.

When WLUP accepted the manuscript for publication on 26 September 1995 it made it on the condition that it "focus on its historical and narrative strengths and ... remove the language of the pietistic believer that undermines the scholarship and downplay the sociological analysis which is often stretched for such a small sample." You will note that the scholars wanted more of a sociological analysis; the publisher wanted more of a narrative--my original manuscript! These new twists and turns in scholarly publishing provide of the shifting sands that made it sometimes difficult to assess where one stands. For all the years of researching and writing this manuscript, there has not been a week without a headache, or worries as to what will come from the work. For about a year after the manuscript was completed, I felt I had to spiritually recuperate from that task.

A substantial change occurred in the way I initially had to substantiate, perhaps apologize, for my being a Bahá'í and doing academic research on my religion. Happily, this is no longer the case. Sometime between 1989 and 1994, the publisher decided that I should be less apologetic about my being a Bahá'í writing about his own religious community. This change occurred at the same time as other Bahá'í academic have become less apologetic about their being Bahá'ís and more critical about non-Bahá'í academic work of their religion (see, e.g., Quinn, 1996).

In going over my correspondence with my publisher, I am appalled by how naive one can be in figuring out a time frame for publishing a book. As Ms. Woolfrey of WLUP indicated, "it takes a perfectly long time to make a perfect book" (Woolfrey. 1995). In a letter from WLUP (4th of June 1992), it seems that the timeline has already been established at 18 months after receipt of the final copy, which would place the publication date at October 1997. However, my first hint of a hoped-for publication date was July 1995; the book was published on 2 December 1996.

The Basis of Future Work Related to the Book

The book appears in time for the 100th anniversary of the introduction of the Bahá'í Faith to Canada in September, 1898. This serendipity seems to be ushering in a fresh wave of research and academic interest in the Bahá'í community.

Already, young Bahá'í men and women at the University of Alberta (Andrew Pemberton-Pigott), Mount Allison University (Kathleen Bray), and the University of Manitoba have found the means to pursue Bahá'í historical research related to their immediate environment. During the research and writing of The Origins, there has been a new Ph.D. dissertation on Canadian (and Indian) Bahá'ís accepted in Canada (Drewek, 1996); another one is underway (Echevarria-Howe, 1996) which was also funded as a doctoral fellowship by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Interest was already expressed by a Bahá'í-run film company in Canada to undertake the filming of Bahá'í history, relying to a great extent on The Origins of the Bahá'í Community of Canada, 1898-1948. Although the company was not able to secure the necessary external grant for this purpose, Bahá'ís are now more ready with bolder plans and ideas that could excite both Bahá'ís and others alike. Productions on "Vision TV" might also feature early historical accounts. I also see more possibilities in the area of children's literature, where an enterprising author might be able to develop stories around the early Bahá'ís in Canada. There is also, I believe, no question about the possibility and the need to develop a travelling Bahá'í-history exhibit, in time for the 100th anniversary in Canada. In this connection, I should mention the hope of publishing a book in the style of a family photo-album, making it a collection of photographs, at which point I can probably use that excellent Preface by Dr. Ross Woodman I referred to earlier.

I believe that Bahá'ís, as well as many others, will be inspired by the single mindedness of our early spiritual ancestors, the dawning of the vision of the unity of humankind, and their ability to translate that belief into action. Our admiration increases when we realize that the conditions under which the Bahá'í Faith came to Canada seemed chaotic at times, frustrating, and slow, characterized by setbacks, but most of all by a legacy which will transmute the grains of sand into pearls.


    Drewek, Paula. 1996. "Cross-cultural Testing of Fowler's Model of Faith Development among Bahá'ís: India and Canada" Ph.D. Dissertation. Ottawa, Ontario. Department of Religious Studies, University of Ottawa. May.

    Echevarria-Howe, Lynn. 1996. "Canadian Bahá'í Women and Social Change: Developing a Bahá'í Perspective." Ph.D. research funded by Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Essex, England. Department of Sociology, University of Essex. (In progress)

    Eichler, Margrit. 1988. Non-Sexist Research Methods: A Practical Guide. Winchester, Mass.: Unwin Hyman.

    Fizet, William. 1989. Letter from William Fizet, Director of Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Waterloo, Ont., to Will C. van den Hoonaard, 19 June.

    Quinn, Wendy. 1996. "The Subject Replies: A Response to the Study on American Bahá'í Discourse and Social Networks." A paper presented at the 13th Qualitative Analysis Conference, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. 31 May.

    Reinharz, Shulamit. 1992. Feminist Methods in Social Research. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Shadbolt, Jack. 1983. "A Personal Recollection." Pp. 34-41 in Vancouver: Art and Artists, 1931-1983, edited by Vancouver Art Gallery. Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery.

    Woolfrey, Sandra. 1993. Letter from Sandra Woolfrey, Director of Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Waterloo, Ont., to Will C. van den Hoonaard, 12 March.

    ____. 1995. Letter from Sandra Woolfrey, Director of Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Waterloo, Ont., to Will C. van den Hoonaard, 9 February.

    [1] Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Waterloo. 1996.

    [2] Here are some statistical data on the project to research the early history of the Bahá'í Faith in Canada:

    • assembled more than 10,000 pages of documents and notes;
    • it took six years to do the research, or just over 2,180 fatiguing days (Aug. 1986-Aug. 1992);
    • and another 777 days of rewriting seven drafts later (March 1993-March 1996);
    • developed a membership list of 555 early Canadian Bahá'ís, based on at least 100 sources of information;
    • six months, or 186 days, went into writing the first draft of the book (Sept. 1992-end of Febr. 1993);
    • interviewed some 40 people and read interviews of another 23; engaged in correspondence with at least 50 people, including scholars and offices of cemeteries;
    • consulted 29 archival collections in Canada and the United States and 8 Bahá'í membership lists;
    • studied 23 official reports;
    • read 19, mostly unpublished, memoirs; and
    • the research and writing cost $27,000 to undertake.

    [3] This is a collection of 14 letters written during World War I by `Abdu'l-Bahá to Bahá'ís in North America, outlining their global tasks of spreading the Bahá'í Faith around the world.

    [4] I might add that in connection with asking for publication and microfilming funds from a Bahá'í funding agency located in Switzerland, I had never received a reply even to this day.

    [5] The reader can find a more detailed treatment of this topic in my article, "The Social Organization of Bahá'í mentorship and scholarship" (forthcoming).

    [6] I have answered these criticisms in my response of 30 May 1994, addressed to the Aid to Scholarly Publications Programme.

    [7] It was personally encouraging for me to receive one of Ms. Woolfrey's many letters (Woolfrey, 1994), in which she noted that I had paid attention to gender equity in another manuscript I reviewed for her. She says, "In a year when the backlash has been feeling a lot more like a whiplash it is wonderful to discover a man who truly concerns himself with issues of human dignity and human decency."

    [8] I was forewarned that the Aid to Scholarly Publications Programme had become "increasingly competitive" and that it was important that the manuscript "be as strong as possible" (Woolfrey, 1993).

    [9] Even Alias Grace, the most recent book by one of Canada's most successful authors, Margaret Atwood, will not likely exceed 7,000 copies in sales (Globe and Mail, 24 September 1996: A22).

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