Read: Origins of the Baha'i Community of Canada 1898-1948, The, by Will C. van den Hoonaard


The Origins of the Bahá'í Community of Canada, 1898-1948
Author: Will C. van den Hoonaard
Published by: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1996
Review by Mike McMullen
published in Sociology of Religion, Vol. 58, 12-22-1997, pp 400(2)

Will van den Hoonaard has performed a commendable service to sociologists of religion by providing one of the few sociological analyses of a national Bahá'í community. He examined the formation of community religious identity, organizational boundaries, and their relationship to wider Canadian society. Van den Hoonaard traced the early history of the Bahá'í community of Canada by culling extensive archival records from the major Canadian Bahá'í centers since the turn of the century, together with numerous in-depth interviews. His goal was to investigate "the origins and early life of a non-Western faith transplanted into a Western setting (i.e., Canada)" (p. 3), resulting in a study that "explores the empirical linkages [of the early Canadian Bahá'í community] to mainstream culture, rather than researching the appeal and teachings of the transplanted religious movement" (p. 6).

Overall, van den Hoonaard accomplished his objectives. His solid scholarship reveals the struggles of the early Canadian Bahá'í community, and its growing identity as an independent religious movement with maturing institutional boundaries. The dates of the book's subtitle bracket the earliest converts to the Bahá'í religion in North America, through the formation of the national governing body of the Bahá'ís of Canada.

The first two parts of the book are its strongest or weakest, depending upon one's perspective. These sections detail the record of the earliest Canadian converts, as well as Americans who moved to Canada. For those especially interested in Bahá'í history, these sections will provide additional detail for many of the well-known, and not so well-known, early North American adherents. For those more interested in sociological analysis, the minutia of history may overwhelm the narrative. At times, as the personalities in the early communities of Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver are recounted, the analysis appears as biographical snippets woven together. As a case in point, the day-by-day detail provided in Chapter 4 on the visit to Canada by `Abdu'l-Bahá (the son of the prophet-founder of the Bahá'í Faith, Bahá'u'lláh, who traveled through parts of Canada in 1912 after release from prison in Palestine) will be most interesting to Bahá'í historians, or Bahá'ís themselves, but weighs down the purely sociological appraisal of the Canadian Bahá'í movement.

This said, however, van den Hoonaard does use this array of archival data to sketch a picture of the early Bahá'í in Canada: primarily middle-to-upper-class Protestants (majority Methodist) who also dabbled in the spiritual disciplines of Theosophy and Rosicrucianism. Despite the predominance of white Protestants, the Bahá'í emphasis on racial amity, unity of religions, and social justice attracted African Canadians, francophone Catholics, Jews, and agnostics.

The third and fourth sections of the book contain the more sociological material. Van den Hoonaard analyzes the development of Bahá'í organizational institutions from the guidance provided by the Bahá'í world headquarters in Haifa, Israel. As these institutions developed, Bahá'í identity became more differentiated from the majority of adherents' early Protestantism and spiritualist tendencies. Membership requirements became more stringent, and Bahá'í law slowly became a part of daily life. Demographically, the Canadian Bahá'í community in the late 1930s and early 1940s consisted primarily of single women and childless couples. Evangelistic efforts consisted of "firesides" or small meetings in the couples' homes; or, when organized by single women, in public meeting spaces such as hotels. This created what van den Hoonaard called the "religion of the living room and hotel (p. 293)," which summarized the public' s exposure to this small transplanted religious movement in Canada.

Van den Hoonaard's discussion of evangelism efforts of the Canadian Bahá'í community leads into an analysis of the growing gender, class, and ethnicity diversity of its adherents by the end of the 1940s. His extensive archival work pays off in an astute analysis of Canadian Bahá'ís' religious backgrounds, gender roles and power sharing, and class and ethnic diversity. He summarizes, however, that the "outlook ... remained Protestant and provided the necessary organizational and temperamental tools for expansion" (p. 246).

Van den Hoonaard concludes in describing the formation by 1948 of an independent national Canadian Bahá'í identity, which had been linked administratively to that of the US Bahá'í community since 1925. This permeable collective identity was forged, van den Hoonaard asserts, despite what he calls the "religious singleness" of the adherents, whereby believers "by virtue of their few members, express their faith in terms of their individual existence, while maintaining their individual ties to a wider society that does not share their beliefs" (p. 277). This religious singleness is a combination of the overwhelmingly Protestant character of Canadian converts, their few numbers and geographic dispersion, and minority status in the religious Landscape of Canada.

Van den Hoonaard provides sociologists with an important text for comprehending the extensive array of religious movements in a pluralistic cultural marketplace. Those readers unfamiliar with Bahá'í ideology or social organization may find parts of the text difficult to fully understand, especially given the rich biographical detail. However, this work is especially significant because of the paucity of sociological investigations of the Bahá'í Faith, providing readers with an important glimpse into the genesis of a little-studied movement. His combination of qualitative and quantitative methodology is skillfully woven into a coherent narrative of the early history of the Canadian Bahá'í community.

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