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COLLECTIONBook reviews
TITLEOrigins of the Bahá'í Community of Canada 1898-1948, The, by Will C. van den Hoonaard: Review
AUTHOR 1Moojan Momen
CONTENT Review of: The Origins of the Bahá'í Community of Canada, 1898-1948
Written by: Will C. van den Hoonaard
Published by: Wilfred Laurier University Press (1996)
Review by: Moojan Momen
Review published in: not published

Dr Will van den Hoonaard has, from the evidence of this book, been researching the history of the Bahá'í Faith in Canada for at least ten years. This research has resulted in several papers including "The Bahá'ís in Canada: A Study in the Transplantation of Non-Western Religious Movements to Western Societies," in Arc: The Journal of the Faculty of Religious Studies (McGill University) 24 (1996), pp. 97-118. The culmination of this research is the present book.

This book is concerned with two main themes: the historical development of the Bahá'í Faith in Canada and a sociological analysis of the Canadian Bahá'í community. With regard to the first theme, Prof. van den Hoonaard describes the origins of the Canadian Bahá'í community among ex-patriot or visiting Canadians who came into contact with the growing Bahá'í community in Chicago in the last few years of the Nineteenth Century. Several of the most colourful characters who became Bahá'ís in the early years of Kheiralla's teaching were Canadians. These included Paul Dealy, an inventor and engineer, devoted to social and economic issues, and Honore Jackson, a "dreamer and visionary" who had championed the cause of the Canadian Metis (mixed-race individuals). Mrs. Kate C. Ives, the first woman born in North America to become a Bahá'í, was of Canadian ancestry.

It was, however, the Magee family who are credited with bringing the Bahá'í Faith to Canada. Edith Magee became a Bahá'í in 1898 in Chicago and returned to her home in London, Ontario, where four other female members of her family became Bahá'ís (22-4). This predominance of women converts became a feature of the Canadian Bahá'í community, as indeed of most religious movements in the West.

The next important event in Canadian Bahá'í history was the arrival in Montreal of May Maxwell in 1902. Her enthusiasm and social connections enabled her to establish a mainly upper class Bahá'í community in Montreal (36-7). Among these early Montreal Bahá'ís were a number of interesting characters, including Dr. Rose Henderson, one of the first women in Canada to obtain a PhD and an ardent feminist and social reformer (38-40).

Prof. van den Hoonaard asserts that it was the visit of `Abdu'l-Bahá to Montreal in 1912 that fused the disparate group of individuals in Canada into a community (43). Communities arose over the next few years in Toronto and Vancouver. Although these communities had a fragile and tentative existence for several years, they eventually became firmly established.

After the departure of May Maxwell for South America in 1939 and of other prominent Bahá'ís from Montreal, Toronto overtook that city as the foremost Bahá'í community on Canada. Here, there was a dynamic community with several Bahá'í "firesides" being held each week and other social activities such as a Bahá'í businessman's club (211-3).

The final event covered in this book began with the election of the first National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Canada in 1948, Canada having previously have a joint National Spiritual Assembly with the United States.

Prof. van den Hoonaard points out the importance for the expansion of the Bahá'í community of such features as the summer schools where a Bahá'í identity could be forged; the enrollment of whole families in some communities such as Hamilton where there was a high rate of growth; and the work of travelling teachers in keeping contacts with the wider Bahá'í community open.

Apart from this broad historical sweep of the events of Bahá'í history, Prof. van den Hoonaard, as a sociologist is also much concerned with the social structure of the Canadian Bahá'í community. He analyses the data that he has managed to collect, giving information in Chapter 13, for example, on the gender, class, ethnicity and religious background of the community. He finds that more women than men became Bahá'ís (68:32 in 1947); that the initial upper class predominance was replaced by a lower-middle predominance by the 1940s; and that the community was predominantly from an Anglo-Saxon (78%) Protestant (75%) background, with a marked under- representation of the francophone (3%) Catholic (12%) population of Canada. His findings are summarised in his statement that a typical Canadian Bahá'í in the early 1940s, would be a white single woman telephone operator, of Protestant background, living in a big city (231).

The analysis presented in this book leaves a few questions unanswered. If one looks at the table in Appendix C, that summarises much of the statistical information that the author has derived, one sees that he has analysed the growth of the Bahá'í Faith in the fifteen largest Bahá'í communities in Canada. If one looks at the figure for "All other" communities, however, one finds that this figure has grown almost faster than any individual community in the table. Unfortunately, almost no information is given about what this "All other" communities represents. It would have been interesting to know, for example, if this category represents mainly small scale growth in other large cities or growth in rural areas. Indeed, rural areas are only occasionally mentioned in the book. This neglect may, of course, be because there was little or no Bahá'í activity in rural Canada or because the author was unable to determine whether there was any such activity. Either way, it would have been interesting to know. In the statistical tables, it would also have been interesting to have been provided with comparative figures for the Canadian population as a whole in order to compare this with the Bahá'í population. This is only done in one table for ethnic groups (p. 245).

In all, Prof. van den Hoonaard has produced a book that I am sure will be considered for many years to come, not only as the standard history of the Canadian Bahá'í community but also as a model for anyone wishing to produce a history of any Bahá'í community or indeed of any religious movement. As the author points out in his Introduction (5), most histories of modern religious movements have tended to be ahistorical snapshots of movements. Taking a view of fifty years of the Bahá'í Faith in Canada allows the author to examine such questions as the process of the adaptation of the religion to its Canadian environment, the effects of wider social events and movements on the development and expansion of the Bahá'í community, and the extent and manner in which minority groups have been integrated into the Bahá'í community.

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