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‘You can never organize the Bahai Cause’

Posted by Sen on December 16, 2010

I’m not a historian: I’m interested mainly in the timeless task of understanding the Bahai teachings, leaving history to those able, and crystal-ball gazing to those interested. But those who don’t know their history, will repeat mistakes in understanding quite needlessly, so sometimes we need to look back at the history of an idea in the Bahai community, especially where it is a mistaken idea that keeps resurfacing. In this case I am looking at some words attributed to Abdu’l-Baha, which Oliver Scharbrodt has recently cited in his book Islam and the Baha’i Faith:

The Bahai Movement is not an organisation. You can never organise the Bahai Cause. The Bahai Movement is the spirit of this age. It is the essence of all the highest ideals of this century.

The Bahai Cause is an inclusive Movement: The teachings of all the religions and societies are found here; the Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Mohammedans, Zoroastrians, Theosophists, Freemasons, Spiritualists, et. al., find their highest aims in this Cause. Even the Socialists and philosophers find their theories fully developed in this Movement.” (page 95)

The search for the source

This is what Bahais call a pilgrim’s note or oral tradition: words attributed to Abdu’l-Baha without an authentic source in Persian that he wrote or approved. Scharbrodt’s source for the citation is Star of the West magazine, volume 5, from 1914 (page 67). He says that Mason Remey makes a similar statement in his 1908 pamphlet The Message of Unity. However Remey’s pamphlet does not include these words. In fact it says just the opposite, at page 12:

Religious government. “The House of Justice, a central assembly, the members of which are selected by general vote, is to preside over the affairs of the Bahai world. Its work, apart from its purely religious character, has to do with charitable and educational matters and the general welfare of the people.

The words beginning “The Bahai Movement is not an organization…” do appear in another pamphlet by Remey, Some Vital Bahai Principles, online at H-Bahai, at page 5. Remey has changed the capitalisation, and has removed the word “even” before “the Socialists and philosophers.” Some Vital Bahai Principles is undated, but H-Bahai and Robert Stockman date it tentatively at 1917, which, as we will see below, makes it a relatively late published instance of this pilgrim’s note.

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If that date is correct, Remey is not the first source of the pilgrim’s note. The earliest occurrence I have found is at the head of an article by Isabel Fraser, published in the The North Shore Review, May 16, 1914. The entire article, with the pilgrim’s note included as a banner text under the title, was republished in Star of the West in the same year, changing only capitalisation, and amending one etc. to et. al. This is the version Scharbrodt refers to.
In The North Shore Review, the words are not in the body of the article, but in a separate text box. Apart from the name of Abdu’l-Baha under the words, there is no source: the words are not attributed for example to a talk Abdu’l-Baha gave, or to words spoken to a particular group of pilgrims, or to someone’s translation of a Persian text. The lack of a ‘chain of transmission’ puts this in the weakest class of pilgrim’s notes. In ‘1917 and all that’ on this blog, I have shown that in another article published in the North Shore Review, a citation attributed to Abdu’l-Baha did not come from the talk of Abdu’l-Baha to which it was attributed, and was in part an altered version of words which EG Browne says Baha’u’llah (not Abdu’l-Baha) spoke to him in Akka. In that case too, the words are separated out in a text box. It could be that this presentation was intended to tell the reader that the content of the box was the work of an editor rather than the article’s attributed author.
It is possible that the second part of the quote in the North Shore Review came from the diary of Mirza Ahmad Sohrab. In I Heard Him Say, a compilation based on his diary when he was one of Abdu’l-Baha’s secretaries, Sohrab includes the second paragraph, with various differences:

This Movement is an all-inclusive one, embracing the teachings of the various schools. The Christian, the Jew, the Mohammedan, the Buddhist, the Zoroastrian, the Theosophist, the Free Mason, the Spiritualist finds his highest ideals in the Bahai Cause; while the Socialist and even the philosopher beholds his theories fully developed therein. This cannot be said of the religions.

This book is certainly not the direct source of the words, since it was published in 1937 while the North Shore Review article was in 1914. However Sohrab’s original diary and letters might be the source, since he frequently quoted portions of his diary, in English, in his letters to individuals and to Star of the West magazine. These letters from Sohrab were also circulated in typescript. Perhaps Isabel Fraser, or the editor or reporter of The North Shore Review has taken “This Movement is an all-inclusive one…” from one of Sohrab’s letters, and “You can never organize the Bahai cause” from some other source.

However another explanation is that the text in I Heard Him Say is not in fact based on Sohrab’s diary or things that Sohrab heard himself from Abdu’l-Baha. Rather Sohrab has drawn on words he knows from Star of the West or later republications based on Star of the West (discussed below), and inserted them into material he did hear from Abdu’l-Baha. The arguments for this are that Abdu’l-Baha, a speaker of Arabic, Persian and Turkish who lived almost all his life in Islamic countries, would hardly use the word ‘Mohammedan’ rather than ‘Muslim,’ and that Sohrab, making notes in Persian, would not be likely to repeat the word if he did. There is no convenient Persian equivalent to ‘Muhammedan’ as a noun, except for ‘Muslim.’ For the same reason, if Abdu’l-Baha said ‘Muslim,’ it is highly unlikely that Sohrab (himself fluent in both languages and familiar with Islamic usage) would record ‘Muhammadan.’ Another improbability is that either Abdu’l-Baha or Sohrab would contrast the Bahai Faith with religion. Both these oddities are more likely to have arisen if Sohrab was quoting a published English source that he respected, and did not wish to alter.

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While we are looking at Sohrab’s I Heard Him Say, someone has asked about the source of the statement that the Bahai Faith is a spiritual democracy. It’s another pilgrim’s note, published on page 120 of the same book.
As for the first paragraph in our quote, the anti-organisational sentiment (but not the exact words) is reported in a letter from Thornton Chase to Charles Mason Remey, on 19 January 1910:

Mr. Percy Woodcock and Mr. Mountfort Mills say [Abdu’l-Baha] has forbidden the establishment of organization. But what [Abdu’l-Baha] said is that there is to be only one House of Justice; the others are Counsel Boards only. He did not forbid organization. Mills misinterpreted [Abdu’l-Baha] and published his notes, saying there is to be no organization. Mrs. [Helen] Goodall then sent out a letter to a lot of persons repeating the statement. Woodcock even said that [Abdu’l-Baha] said that organization “interferes with the action of the Spirit.”

Mountfort Mills apparently wrote notes of his pilgrimage, which must have been in late 1908 or early 1909, since Stockman’s ‘Notes on the Thornton Chase Papers’ says that “pilgrim notes of Mountford Mills regarding organization” are in the Thornton Chase Papers. I do not have them. Whatever the words, as recorded in his notes may be, they did not prevent Mills playing a prominent role in Bahai organization, in New York and nationally.

I have found one page of Percy Woodcock’s pilgrim’s notes, dated 1909:

Regarding the House of Justice, the Master said: “It is a great mistake to suppose that there will be a House of Justice in every city. The fact is there will be but one House of Justice for the whole world, to be composed of individuals from each country. In each city there will be a Spiritual Meeting or Board of Council, composed of nine or more, whose function will be to attend to the business of the Assembly. This Spiritual Meeting will have no power to control or make laws. The members of the Council are merely the servants of the Assembly or community.”

Continuing in this connection the Master said: “A house is never furnished before the structure is erected. So with the Cause of Baha’u’llah. It must be first built up; afterwards it will be furnished with justice and then it will be called the House of Justice. When this time comes and the universal House of Justice is once established, its commands will be obeyed by all.”

The Kitab-e Aqdas in fact specifies that “in every city a House of Justice [should] be established,” and Abdu’l-Baha knew this very well. However by 1909 he had already given instructions that the local institution should be called a Spiritual Gathering or House of Spirituality. Woodcock evidently understood that the different name entailed a difference in authority as well.

I have not found the text of Helen Goodall’s letter citing Mills’ report, which Chase said she had sent to ‘a lot of people.’ However from what Chase says about it, it seem plausible that the letter, or possibly Mill’s pilgrim’s notes, were available to the editor or reporter of the North Shore Review.

In another letter from Thornton Chase, 14 January 1910, he indicates that Woodcock and Annie Boylan, rather than Mills, were the sources of the anti-organisation sentiment:

There are struggles among the New York Baha’is too. Mr. Mills and Mr. Woodcock are involved [probably opposition to organization – RS]. “Mr. Mills is a nice man, a comparatively new believer, who has been under the influence of Mr. W and his women upholders in N.Y. He was not settled and grounded in the Faith at all, but was in the condition of wonder.” He is now Chairman of the New York Board; he was “elected by the bevey of ‘insurgents’ which has Miss Boylan as an active worker.”

Chase follows this with what is recognisably a reference to the Woodcock note cited above, which said there would be only one House of Justice for the world. A continuing current of anti-organisation sentiment can be glimpsed two years later, in a letter from Annie Boylan to Corinne True, dated September 5 1911. Boylan was another of the younger generation of Bahais who had been elected to the Board of Counsel in New York along with Mills. When she wrote this letter, she was returning from a visit to Abdu’l-Baha in Thonon-les-Baines (see Abdu’l-Baha by Lake Geneva on this blog). She says:

You know Abdul-Baha goes to London and Paris and He is sad that He cannot go to America on account of the conditions of inharmony. He said: “If I go, there will be complaints and I should run away. I have made a pact with the Americans that when they are in perfect harmony I shall visit them.” But he expressed clearly that it was a Spiritual Unity that was desired and not a political unity. He said Bahais have nothing to do with political organization or having constitutions or committees for governing – that no Bahai wants to be on a committee. He works for the spreading of the Cause, for the orphan, the poor and the sick and he does not bother about all the organizations and committees. He said: I am a follower of Baha’o’llah and I belong to no Assembly. I am on no committee.” And it was good to hear his hearty laugh. He said, let those who wish to be on committees, be on them, but Bahais had other work to do. He says we are not working enough for the Mashrak-el Azkar …”

The effects of anti-organisation sentiment – or disunity between organisers such as Chase and others – on the Bahai Assemblies should not be over-rated. There were other activities and institutions competing for the time of the Bahais, and other reasons why American Bahai communities, and not just their local institutions, went into decline at that time.

The paper trail

After the publication of the article in the North Shore Review and Star of the West volume 5, both in 1914, the “quotation” from Abdu’l-Baha was republished many times. Those I have traced are:

In 1915, in Star of the West Vol 6, Number 15, p. 118 (December 6)

In 1916, in an article in North Shore News, October 19 1916, attributed to Jean Masson. This article was reprinted in 1917, in Star of the West Vol 8, Number 8, page 95 (August 1).

In 1917, in an article in The Forum (New York), no. 58, p. 175. The article, “Is the Millennium Upon Us?” is by E.A. Dime, who reports on the Bahai Convention in Boston, held in April, 1917. His article includes a list of nine “fundamental religious doctrines” of the Bahais, the last of which reads:

That that universal kingdom, or brotherhood, is a Spirit, the spirit of love, of truth and of freedom, and that it is, therefore, not capable of organization, in the sense that it is not can cannot be dogmatic and a hard and fast body of doctrines, but that each one must become conscious of the spiritual reality for himself and to the measure of his own capacity. To quote the words of Abdul Baha on this point: “The Bahai Revelation is not an organization. The Bahai Cause can never be organized. The Bahai Revelation is the spirit of this age. It is the essence of the highest ideals of this century. The Bahai Cause is an inclusive movement: the teachings of all religions and societies are found here. Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Mohammedans, Zoroastrians, Theosophists, Freemasons, Spiritualists, etc., find their highest aims in this Cause. Socialists and philosophers find their theories fully developed in this Revelation.

In this connection the Bahais explain that the impossibility of organizing the Bahai Cause does not mean that the people cannot organize and cooperate for the accomplishment of the work of this Cause.

The quotation has the same form as the version in The North Shore Review, except that ‘Even’ has been removed. It is interesting because the authenticity of “the Bahai Cause can never be organized” is accepted, but it is framed by an interpretation so that this ‘really’ refers to avoiding dogmatism and to the individual search after truth and the relativity of religious truth (two Bahai principles not otherwise included in this list).

In 1919, in The Bahai Revelation and Reconstruction by Charles Mason Remey

In 1920, in Star of the West Vol. 11, Number 1, page 5.

In August 1920, Star of the West published an article by Remey that shows that the contradiction between the pilgrim’s note and Bahai teachings and practice had not passed unnoticed. The article, entitled ‘Bahai Organization,’ points out that the Bahai Spiritual Assemblies have been established on the instructions of Abdu’l-Baha, to organize the activities of the community through consultation. Good consultation will ensure unity. Then he says (page 154),

Some of the friends of the Bahai Cause have been a little confused regarding the organization of the holy Cause because of the wide circulation of some words, to the effect that this Cause should never be organized – thus some have imagined that no form of Bahai organization should exist. Now of late we are informed by pilgrims returning to their homes from Palestine that Abdul-Baha has explained that these words circulated to the effect that the Cause should never be organized, give an impression very different from that of the reality of his teachings. Experience in the Bahai Cause shows us that when special questions arise, it is always well to gather together all of the holy Words treating of the subject…” “applying this principle … to this statement that “the Bahai Cause can never be organized,” we see immediately that there is a discrepancy, for in the principles of the Cause we find the foundation for a very highly developed spiritual organization which will center about the establishment of the Bahai House of Justice.

In 1921, Horace Holley mentioned the words in The Spirit of the Age (page 28). In Holley’s book, the pilgrim’s note is in a footnote, linked to the text, “The slight Bahai organisation which exists is, in comparison with the Revelation itself, only as body in comparison to soul.” As in Remey’s 1920 article, Holley has noted the incongruity of the Bahais claiming that the Bahai cause is non-organisational, while also claiming the superiority of their elected organisations over clerical hierarchies. He suggests that Abdu’l-Baha really meant that the organisational structure does not replace or encapsulate the entire Spirit – which is a likely enough explanation, and as we will see may be based on a pilgrim’s note of 1920 which I have not located.

Also in 1921, Mary Hanford Ford cited the words in The World of Abdu’l-Baha (Pages 5-6), in the form Remey used (omitting ‘even’).

Then in March 1923, Star of the West published a long essay called ‘Baha’i Organization: Its basis in the revealed word,’ written by three knowledgeable Bahais appointed to prepare it by the National Spiritual Assembly: Louis G. Gregory, Agnes S. Parsons and Mariam Haney. It is in effect the Bahai organization’s rebuttal of the pilgrim’s note. It begins – correctly in my view – by pointing to a generalised distrust of all organization, as an infringement on liberty. This social context, and not the paper trail I am following here, is the real story, but it is too big a story for me, or for a blog posting. But we must recognise at least in passing that the power of ‘you cannot organise’ comes not from its credibility as a text, but from the existing distrust of organisation, especially in religion, with which that text meshed. That distrust is rooted in the bankruptcy of older forms of organised religion in the 19th century (I note that new religious organizations, such as new forms of mission, filled the gap) and from the particular anti-episcopal character of religion in the United States.

The article then refers to the Bahai Writings that specify the establishment of Bahai Houses of Justice in every town, and cites briefly a tablet from Abdu’l-Baha on religious law and the House of Justice, which I have translated in full on this blog. But then, confusingly, it switches to a discussion of the International Court, an entirely different institution, to be organized by the Governments of the world (p 324), before switching back to citing Abdu’l-Baha’s instructions to organize spiritual assemblies. Then it states,

It is known that some misapprehension exists as to the need of organization in the Cause. This has grown out of a widely circulated statement, attributed to Abdul baha, that the Bahai Cause could never be organized. The true statement was, as corrected by Abdul Baha, that the Bahai Cause can never be rigidly organized; it can never be confined to an organization. The context of the statement tells why, namely: “It is the Spirit of the Age, the essence of all the highest ideals of the century.”

At Haifa, Syria, in 1920, the following question was asked Abdul Baha by some American pilgrims:

“It is misleading, is it not, to say that the Bahai Cause cannot be organized?”

Abdul Baha replied: “How is it possible that there should be no organization?

Even in a household if there is not organization there will be hopeless confusion. Then what about the world? What is meant is that organization is not rigid! In ancient times it was rigid. In the Torah all the political affairs [sic] were rigidly fixed, but in this Cause they were not. In this Cause there is political freedom i.e., in each time the House of Justice is free to decide in accordance with what is deemed expedient. This is a brief explanation of the matter.”

I note in passing that ‘political’ here is very likely to be a mistranslation of siyasiyah, which can mean politics, but here would mean the punishments and administrative rules which are not specified in scripture, and which in the Bahai Faith are assigned to the House of Justice. These were specified in some detail in the Jewish religious law (properly speaking, the Halakhah, which is more extensive than Torah alone), without much flexibility, but in the Bahai era such matters are left to the discretion of the Houses of Justice who can make and change rulings appropriate to the time.

The pilgrim’s note sourced in this article as coming from Haifa in 1920 is presumably the one to which Mason Remey and Horace Holley based their explanations in 1920 and 1921, as already noted.

One way of dealing with this was to simply omit the offending words in the citation. In 1924 The South China Morning Post [in Hong Kong] reported the arrival of Martha Root and Mrs Schopflocher, saying:

While interviewing Mrs. Schopflocher and Miss Root they both said that the Baha’i Revelation is the spirit of this age. It is the essence of all the highest ideals of this century. The Baha’i cause is an inclusive movement; the teachings of all religions and societies are found in it, Christians, Theosophists, Buddhists, Mohammedans, Jews, Freemasons, Zoroastrians, find their highest aims in this cause. Socialists and philosophers find their theories fully developed in this revelation. (Quoted by Graham Hassal)

Evidently, these are not words parroted off independently by the two Bahais in interviews. The newspaper seems to be quoting some written material provided to its reporter. We don’t know what it was, but the word ‘even’ has been omitted before ‘socialists and philosophers,’ as it was when the words were quoted by Mason Remey in 191. More to the point, the words “The Bahai Movement is not an organisation. You can never organise the Bahai Cause” have now been omitted.

In 1925, an article on ‘The Unity of Civilization’ by Y.S. Tsao was published in Star of the West Vol. 16, p. 558 (September 1925), and reprinted in Baha’i Year Book, Vol. 1, 1925-1926, p. 146. This quotes the words, but rephrases them as follows:

The Baha’i revelation [was, ‘movement’] is not an organization. The Baha’i Cause can never be confined to an organization. [was, ‘You can never organize the Bahai cause.’] The Baha’i revelation [movement] is the spirit of this age. It is the essence of all the highest ideals of this century. The Baha’i cause is an inclusive movement; the teachings of all religions and societies are found here. Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muharnmadans, Zoroastrians, Theosophists, Freemasons, Spiritualists, etc. find their highest aims in this Cause. Socialists and philosophers find their theories fully developed in this revelation.”

In addition to the changes I have noted in parentheses, the word ‘even’ is omitted. But what is striking is that ‘you can never organize’ has been changed to ‘can never be confined to an organization’ – in line with the pilgrim’s note from 1920. It was not unusual at that time for the North American Bahais (and perhaps others) to change the words of Abdu’l-Baha to match what they felt he must have meant. (See ‘A consummate union’ on this blog.)

Ruth White on a bandwagon

Ruth White was an American Bahai who, after the death of Abdu’l-Baha in November 1921, challenged the authenticity of his Will, which appointed Shoghi Effendi as the Guardian of the Bahai Faith. In a pamphlet called ‘The Bahai Organisation, the enemy of the Bahai Religion’ (whose title tells her story nicely), she writes on page 5,

…these were my convictions [ie against all organization] when I visited Abdul Baha at Haifa, Palestine, in 1920. Therefore, one day when he very opportunely spoke of certain conditions existing in America among the Bahais, I mentioned to him that I had never belonged to the Bahai organization (Spiritual Assemblies). His face beamed with happiness as he replied:

Good, very good. The organization that the Bahais have among themselves has nothing to do with the teachings of Baha’ollah. The teachings of Baha’o’llah are universal and cannot be confined to a sect.

The same thought runs through all the writings of Baha’o’llah and of Abdul Baha. It is expressed in many different ways, ranging from the above, and the following unequivocal statement: “The Bahai Religion is not an organization. You can never organize the Bahai Cause,” to the less obvious way of saying the same thing. For instance, Abdul Baha says that it will be impossible to create any schism in the Bahai Religion. The Bahais have interpreted this as meaning that two Bahai organizations cannot be formed when, as a matter of fact, both Baha’o’llah and Abdul Baha show that no organization can be formed.

It would be impossible to over-state the absurdity of this. “You can never organize the Bahai Cause” is not a thought that runs through all the writings of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha, it is an isolated, unsourced reference, first appearing in a local newspaper, which contradicts the Bahai writings from the time of the Kitab-e Aqdas onwards, and is also incompatible with the encouragement and approval that Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha gave to the formation of Spiritual Assemblies, first in the Persian-speaking world, and then in the West. There are certainly thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of letters from Abdu’l-Baha on the topic. What is more, Ruth White obviously knew at least some of this. So how could she rationalise her preference for one piece of hearsay?

She first distinguishes two aspects of the Bahai teachings, the first a mystic path of personal attainment:

Only as mankind succeeds in putting the principles of the first [spiritual, unorganised] aspect into practice will the second aspect come into existence. This deals with the government of the future state. That is, when the majority of the peoples of the world become Bahais through deeds, they will naturally want to vote for the laws which Baha’o’llah and Abdul Baha have outlined for the economic readjustment of the affairs of the world. This is as follows: in each country of the world there will be established, by universal vote, what will be known as Houses of Justice. These will take the place of our senates and parliaments of the world. From the members there will be established a Universal House of Justice. One of the ordinances of the House of Justice will be the Laws of Inheritance …. Another ordinance of the House of Justice will be the law of Huquq. This is similar to our present income-tax laws, … But Abdul Baha makes it very clear that this will take place only by the vote of the majority of the peoples of the world. The people naturally will obey these Houses of Justice in the same way that we obey our governments today (or should obey). …. All during the lifetimes of Baha’o’llah and Abdul Baha the words “Beytul-adl,” which literally mean “House of the Just,” were translated as meaning just what they mean – House of Justice. But since the death of Abdul Baha these words have been mistranslated as meaning “Spiritual Assembly.” That is by substituting the words “Spiritual Assembly” for “House of Justice” it makes the writings of Baha’o’llah and of Abdul Baha read as if they meant that the Spiritual Assemblies should be obeyed, instead of which they mean that we should obey the future state when it is called “House of Justice,” exactly as we are commanded to obey our governments today.

White’s reasoning begins by making the spiritual and organisational aspects of the Bahai teaching consecutive, rather than concurrent: we must first become spiritual and only when the majority of the people have become Bahais will its organisational aspects come into play. In this, and the distinction she makes between Spiritual Assemblies and Houses of Justice, her thinking shows a similarity to Percy Woodcock’s pilgrim’s note, quoted above. But White’s next step is to assume that the Houses of Justice are a form of government organisation, elected by all the people (most of whom are supposed to be Bahais at this stage) in the distant future. The Bahai Houses of Justice, she thinks, will replace national governments, not by revolution but by the free choice of the people. She must know that Abdu’l-Baha has in fact supported the election of Spiritual Assemblies, but supposes these to be merely advisory bodies that Bahais do not need to obey, for the Houses of Justice which will need to be obeyed, are future governments. So she can nurture the idea of a religion without organisation, without any machinery to embody its ideals.

Shoghi Effendi responds

In February 1929, just a month after Ruth White’s pamphlet was published, Shoghi Effendi wrote to the members of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais of the United States and Canada (then a combined institution). Ruth White was not only propagating an organisation-free form of the Bahai Faith, she questioned the authenticity of the Will and Testament of Abdu’l-Baha which clearly laid down the two pillars of the organisation: the Guardianship and the House of Justice. Therefore Shoghi Effendi addresses these two issues together. He begins by pointing to the continuity between the Will and Testament and the Aqdas. He does not specify which points he has in mind here, but I imagine it must have been the provisions for Houses of Justice to be elected by the believers (thus, they are not governments, but governance for the Bahai community) and the indications of some role for the Aghsan, the descendants of Baha’u’llah. He does not detail the arguments for the authenticity of Abdu’l-Baha’s Will and Testament, simply noting that (with the exception of Ruth White, who was hardly competent to judge), no-one had any doubts about it. Had he chosen to, he could have pointed out that Ruth White’s own pamphlet included the testimony of Abdu’l-Baha’s secretary, Sohrab, that the Will and Testament is written in Abdu’l-Baha’s own hand, signed by him, and that the first two sections also bear Abdu’l-Baha’s seal.

Shoghi Effendi then refers to a pilgrim’s note which he does not identify, but given the context it must surely be the ‘cannot organise’ passage. He says,

I am at a loss to explain that strange mentality that inclines to uphold as the sole criterion of the truth of the Baha’i Teachings what is admittedly only an obscure and unauthenticated translation of an oral statement made by Abdu’l-Baha, in defiance and total disregard of the available text of all of His universally recognized writings.

And regarding such materials generally:

I truly deplore the unfortunate distortions that have resulted …. from the incapacity of the interpreter to grasp the meaning of Abdu’l-Baha, and from his [the translator’s] incompetence … Not infrequently has the interpreter even failed to convey the exact purport of the inquirer’s specific questions, and, by his deficiency of understanding and expression in conveying the answer of Abdu’l-Baha, has been responsible for reports wholly at variance with the true spirit and purpose of the Cause. [Therefore] … I have insistently urged the believers of the West to regard such statements as merely personal impressions of the sayings of their Master, and to quote and consider as authentic only such translations as are based upon the authenticated text of His recorded utterances in the original tongue. (Full text here.)

“Baha’i administration,” he writes, “… is specifically prescribed in unnumbered Tablets, and rests in some of its essential features upon the explicit provisions of the Kitab-i-Aqdas. … To dissociate the administrative principles of the Cause from the purely spiritual and humanitarian teachings” (as Ruth White does, by making them two consecutive phases) “would be tantamount to a mutilation of the body of the Cause, a separation that can only result in the disintegration of its component parts…”

Among the elements of Bahai administration covered in these ‘unnumbered Tablets,’ Shoghi Effendi says, are “the necessity of the submission of every adherent of the Faith to the considered judgment of Baha’i Assemblies … the decisive character of the majority vote; and … the desirability for the exercise of close supervision over all Baha’i publications.” Here again he is refuting Ruth White’s criticisms of what she saw as perversions of Abdu’l-Baha’s message. He continues by attacking her major argument, that the Spiritual Assemblies are not really the same things as Houses of Justice:

That the Spiritual Assemblies of today will be replaced in time by the Houses of Justice, and are to all intents and purposes identical and not separate bodies, is abundantly confirmed by Abdu’l-Baha Himself. He has in fact in a Tablet addressed to the members of the first Chicago Spiritual Assembly, the first elected Baha’i body instituted in the United States, referred to them as the members of the “House of Justice” for that city, and has thus with His own pen established beyond any doubt the identity of the present Baha’i Spiritual Assemblies with the Houses of Justice referred to by Baha’u’llah. For reasons which are not difficult to discover, it has been found advisable to bestow upon the elected representatives of Baha’i communities throughout the world the temporary appellation of Spiritual Assemblies, a term which, as the position and aims of the Baha’i Faith are better understood and more fully recognized, will gradually be superseded by the permanent and more appropriate designation of House of Justice.

One of the Tablets in which Abdu’l-Baha ordered that the name of the institution should be changed temporarily, is this:

The signature of that meeting should be the Spiritual Gathering (House of Spirituality) and the wisdom therein is that hereafter the government should not infer from the term “House of Justice” that a court is signified, that it is connected with political affairs, or that at any time it will interfere with governmental affairs.

Hereafter, enemies will be many. They would use this subject as a cause for disturbing the mind of the government and confusing the thoughts of the public. The intention was to make known that by the term Spiritual Gathering (House of Spirituality), that Gathering has not the least connection with material matters, and that its whole aim and consultation is confined to matters connected with spiritual affairs. This was also instructed (performed) in all Persia. (Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha v1, 5)

Abdu’l-Baha changed the name of the House of Justice to make it clear that it is not a court or connected with political affairs: Ruth White however thought that Houses of Justice were a form of government, which would “take the place of our senates and parliaments.” Shoghi Effendi returned to this point in 1932, when he wrote:

Theirs is not the purpose, … to allow the machinery of their administration to supersede the government of their respective countries. ( The World Order of

Had Ruth White understood that, she might have seen that the Spiritual Assemblies of her day were the same things as the Houses of Justice that have a mandate in the Bahai scriptures.

Then (in his 1929 letter), Shoghi Effendi turns to another argument made by Ruth White, that a majority of the peoples of the world would have to become ‘spiritual’ Bahais before its teachings about the Houses of Justice could be implemented “by the vote of the majority of the peoples of the world.” Shoghi Effendi replies:

…contrary to what has been confidently asserted, the establishment of the Supreme House of Justice is in no way dependent upon the adoption of the Baha’i Faith by the mass of the peoples of the world [or] by the majority of the inhabitants of any one country. In fact, Abdu’l-Baha, Himself, in one of His earliest Tablets, contemplated the possibility of the formation of the Universal House of Justice in His own lifetime

A conclusion

I have traced the origin of this pilgrim’s note to a 1914 newspaper report, where it is attached to an article written by Isabel Fraser. All or part of these words might come from an earlier source, perhaps from someone who claimed to have heard them from Abdu’l-Baha. If so, the virtue of blogging is that this information can be included when it comes to hand. We’ve also seen that the words were repeated, changed, and explained, and that one of the explanations is said to the one given by Abdu’l-Baha to a group of American pilgrims in 1920. I have not discovered a source text for that explanation, but it is at any rate a stronger text than the ‘cannot organize’ report, for it at least indicates what kind of source it comes from.

As I have noted, the ‘cannot organise’ report was cited by Scharbrodt, who adds,

Shoghi Effendi doubts the authenticity of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s statement, as it counters his own efforts to turn the Baha’i movement into an exclusivist religious organisation.

This claim is about something far more fundamental than the authenticity of the words: it implies that the organisation of the Bahai movement was not something explicitly required by Baha’u’llah, in the Aqdas and several other important works, was not actively promulgated by Abdu’l-Baha throughout his ministry, in countless tablets written to the Bahais of both East and West – rather, it was imposed on the religion by Shoghi Effendi! But this an absurd idea. As we have seen, it flies in the face of all the textual and historical evidence that an organisational structure for the Bahai Faith was envisioned, and specified, by Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha. Peter Smith, in The Babi and Bahai Religions page 109 also cites the words, as typical of the way that early American Bahais conceived their religion. Is this true? The words constitute a tiny minority of the volume of Bahai writings and hearsay that circulated in the American Bahai community, and that material included a great deal about the Houses of Justice (Spiritual Assemblies). The Bahais actually established not only Assemblies, but also women’s assemblies, teaching assemblies, magazines, a Persian-American Friendship Society … at times, they probably had more committees per capita than the Methodists.

In The Baha’i Faith in America, volume 2, Robert Stockman calls the period 1909 to 1911 ‘Trying Times,’ notably for its young institutions. This was not entirely, or perhaps largely, because of increasing anti-organisation sentiment. The Bahai Temple Unity organisation had been established, leaving some to feel there was little need for the national Bahai coordinating body, the House of Spirituality. The Bahai Publishing society was taking day-to-day responsibility for another major activity, but from 1909 became inactive due to lack of funds (it was owned by its governor/members, not by the Bahais at large). The Star of the West was established in 1910, and absorbed the energies of a number of able and active believers. At the same time, the House of Spirituality, based in Chicago, was in the doldrums, judging by the sparsity of correspondence and minutes from 1910 to 1917. In 1910, its chairman, Harry Thompson, announced that he was the prophet to succeed Baha’u’llah. He was not taken seriously and no more is heard of him, but the institution’s image was certainly not helped. (See Stockman pp 325-6 for this episode). Nevertheless, National Bahai conventions were held, the Temple Unity did its work, local communities continued to function across the country, with disparate forms of organisation and the ups and downs one would expect from small communities of mobile and sometimes volatile souls. In New York, the disunity and high turnover in the membership of the Board of Counsel was partly due to personality-based factions, and apparently partly due to pro- and anti-organisational disagreements. In 1911 that was largely resolved by Abdu’l-Baha, who instructed them to increase the membership of the Board to 27, out of a voting community of about 60. (Stockman, BFA vol. 2 338) Therefore if there was an anti-organisation period in New York, it lasted only two years, and the problem was resolved slightly over three years before the ‘cannot organize’ report appeared in the North Shore Review. I doubt that anti-organisation sentiment reached that strength anywhere outside of New York. Therefore I think it is reasonable to question whether the words reported in the North Shore Review can be taken as indicative of how early American Bahais understood their faith, as Peter Smith and Oliver Scharbrodt have done.

Updated, October 2015: added material from E.A. Dime in 1917.
I am grateful to Steve Cooney and Robert Stockman for help in locating some of the materials used here.

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Related content:
Bahai Lore (tag)
In search of Spiritual Democracy

10 Responses to “‘You can never organize the Bahai Cause’”

  1. Bahai is both spiritual and organizational. But it has become more organizational over time or so it seems to me. As an organization it seemed elitist and overly top down to me years ago and seems the same way now but from the outside. Capturing the spirit of the age is more attractive. Even if Abdul Baha never said the Bahai faith can never be organized I wish he had. Looking for specific instructions in sacred text has led mankind astray for centuries. Its a pity the Bahais are continuing this tradition.

  2. Sen said

    Textuality is a very good thing in religion. It was textuality that enabled Francis of Assisi to rediscover the Christ of poverty and service, and the 18th/19th century evangelicals to re-interpret the tradition to discover an anti-slavery message. Textuality provides the ground for both the Islamic feminists and modernists, and their opponents. It’s both the jousting-ground, and the thing that keeps them talking and living together, and keeps their dialogue intelligible to one another and the Islamic community which, largely, observes and forms their own conclusion.

    Textuality in short is ‘best technology’ in religion — but immediately opens up the possibility of perverting the message by corrupting the text. Every advance brings its problems with it.

  3. gordon said

    Ah yes another example of America’s ceaseless search for a ‘tea party’ of the soul. Here in Asia where I live the prevailing mindset is often different- people lack confidence in their own opinions and tend to follow the emotions of the spirit in the belief that form will follow, but that can be equally confusing with a myriad forms arising which are open to manipulation and corruption. Paradoxically this often leads in turn to a hunger for clear and strong form of leadership or organization.

  4. Sen you’ll notice that I wrote “Looking for specific instructions…” Scared texts are useful starting points, trail markers, and guides but followers of most religions look for complete answers to every question. Inevitably they are disappointed. Unless of course they start making stuff up — and that leads to far worse things than disappointment. By making stuff up I don’t mean thinking for oneself — that is good and is what happens when you use sacred texts as a starting point. What I mean is acting as if what you wish were in some Sacred Text was actually there.

  5. Anon said

    Very good article. Perhaps your next one could be the deconstruction of the quote attributed to ‘Abdu’l-Baha wherein he ‘says’, ‘I have not ‘Appointed’ anyone…..’

  6. Sen said

    “I have not, and do not appoint anyone…” comes from Sohrab’s book ‘I heard him say”, on page 120

    I do not regard the recollections in this book as reliable, even among pilgrim’s notes, since in the case of most pilgrim’s notes (1) there are multiple pilgrims or a whole audience present, which limits the temptation for any of them to deliberately alter what was said, and (2) they are written and circulated soon after the event, when other witnesses would have a chance to contradict.

    However it is possible that the same quote was circulated from Sohrab earlier, and it is possible that a group of pilgrims and not just Sohrab heard the words said.

  7. Nayman said

    The Bahai Cause will be organized through the institutions that Bahaullah specifically revealed – the Houses of Justice.

  8. Sen said

    Amen. The puzzle is, where did this “never organize” meme come from, and how could it be so widely used for so long, when it contradicted Bahai scriptures that were available even at that time?

    As with other topics I’ve discussed here, it’s an object lesson on how hard it is to shed cultural baggage and see what the Bahai teachings really say.

  9. Jonas said

    This really made me realise how much our understanding of the Faith has grown in this short time period. I find it very interesting, that not only we as individuals can learn and make progress towards realizing personal spiritual transformation, but also how the Bahá’í community is guided to gradually understand and put into practice more and more of the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh. Also I guess that we can be really thankful to the generations before us, who surely have gone through the same effort that we do and on whose achievements we can build today. Imagine how within only very few years the Bahá’ís have adopted a mode of action that helps them tend to the spiritual needs of more and more people, at the same time offering them the rich blessings of the Sacred Writings and welcoming each individual’s contribution towards the betterment of the world (well, at least we’re getting there in many places). Today you can really see vibrant communities that strive to center themselves around service in many places all over the world. And last but not least this really makes me hope and pray that I myself can detach myself when future generations want to build upon our efforts when maybe our own minds are not that well reasoned with anymore 😉

  10. Anon said

    The quote comes from the diary of Ahmad Sohrab and is a record of words of Abdu’l-Baha spoken in Vienna on 20 April 1913. Seen in its full context, quoted below, it is a case study in the gentle and subtle method of the Master in expressing concepts – in this case, the need for an organizing power in religion – that might be challenging for the listener. A pity that it has so often been misused to make the opposite point.


    Someone said: “I have been told that the objects of the Bahá’í movement and the Theosophical Society are one and the same. If so, why should there be two names, two distinct organizations, two modes of expression?”

    The Master: “Well said. You have brought up a good point. According to our faith whosoever investigates independently the reality, he is a Bahá’í, although he may not know this himself. We do not desire to add another name or word to the already many names. Our aim is to spread the knowledge of reality, and diffuse the fragrance of the rose. Because there are two or many roses of the same color and perfume, can we say that one of them is not necessary? Let us have all the sweet roses we can get. We can never have enough roses. Can we? Besides this, the Bahá’í movement is not an organization. It is the fresh Breeze of the Garden of God. You can never organize the Bahá’í Cause. It cannot be located in one single place or centered in one individual. The Bahá’í movement is the spirit of this age. It is everywhere. It has no geographical limits. It is the essence of all the highest ideals of this century. A person may claim to be a Bahá’í or may be known as a Bahá’í for all his life and may not know at all what a Bahá’í means. Another person may never have heard the name Bahá’í and may at the same time practice all the attributes which are necessary to make one a Bahá’í. That is why his holiness Christ says, those who are not against us are with us. You must know the tree by its fruits.

    “Now, to answer your question from another standpoint, everyone knows that in a seed, there lay enveloped the young plant, the root, the tree, the branches, the blossoms and the fruits. This simple knowledge is however not sufficient. There must needs be a gardener to plant the seed in a pure ground, to water it, to take care of it till it reaches to the stages of fruition. There must needs be the power of the Holy Spirit to put into practice the divine principles. All that his holiness Bahá’u’lláh has written are today practiced by the Bahá’ís. More than 20,000 people have sacrificed their lives. One of the principles of Bahá’u’lláh is universal peace amongst the religions. In the Orient, the religions were inimical towards each other; now through this power they are united. In the world of existence every undertaking is dependent upon the realization of three things. First, knowledge. Second, decision. Third, executive power. For example in building this hotel, first the plan was drawn. Second the company approved and decided upon the plan. Third, the capitalists put their money together to build it. Again, the Bahá’í Cause is an all-inclusive movement. The teachings of all the religions and societies are found here. The Christians, the Jews, the Mohammadans, the Buddhists, the Zoroastrians, the Theosophists, the Freemasons, the Spiritualists, etc etc do find their highest aims in this Cause, while this cannot be applied to other religions, sects and societies. Even the socialists and philosophers find their theories fully developed in this movement.”

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