The immediate effect of the winning of the Ten Year Crusade and the establishment of the Universal House of Justice was to give a powerful impetus to the advance of the Cause. This time the progress—which affected virtually every aspect of Bahá’í life—took the form of long-range developments that are best appreciated when the entire period since 1963 is viewed as a whole. During these crucial thirty-seven years the work proceeded rapidly forward along two parallel tracks: the expansion and consolidation of the Bahá’í community itself and, along with it, a dramatic rise in the influence the Faith came to exercise in the life of society. While the range of Bahá’í activities greatly diversified, most such efforts tended to contribute directly to one or other of the two main developments.
A decision taken by the House of Justice at an early point in the period proved crucial to all aspects of both teaching and administrative development. Realization that there was no successor to Shoghi Effendi brought with it recognition that neither would the appointment of new Hands of the Cause be any longer possible. How essential the functions of this institution are to the progress of the Faith had been demonstrated with unforgettable force during the anxious six years between 1957 and 1963. Accordingly, in pursuance of the mandate authorizing it to bring into existence new Bahá’í institutions,119 as the needs of the Cause require, the House of Justice created, in June 1968, the Continental Boards of Counsellors. Empowered to extend into the future the functions of the Hands of the Cause for the protection and propagation of the Faith, the new institution assumed responsibility for guiding the work of the already existing Auxiliary Boards and joined National Assemblies in shouldering responsibilities for the advancement of the Faith. The great victories celebrated at the end of the Nine Year Plan in 1973, splendid in themselves, reflected the extraordinary ease with which the new administrative agency had taken up its duties and the eagerness with which it had been welcomed by believers and Assemblies alike. The moment was marked by another major development of the Administrative Order, the creation of the International Teaching Centre, the Body that would carry into the future certain of the responsibilities performed by the group of “Hands of the Cause Residing in the Holy Land”, and from this point on coordinate the work of the Boards of Counsellors around the world.
Envisioning the course that the growth of the Cause would follow, Shoghi Effendi had written of “the launching of worldwide enterprises destined to be embarked upon, in future epochs of that same [Formative] Age, by the Universal House of Justice, that will symbolize the unity and coordinate and unify the activities of … National Assemblies.”120 These global undertakings began in 1964 with the Nine Year Plan, to be followed by a Five Year Plan (1974), a Seven Year Plan (1979), a Six Year Plan (1986), a Three Year Plan (1993), a Four Year Plan (1996), and a Twelve Month Plan that ended the century. The shifts in emphasis that distinguished these successive endeavours from one another provide a useful index to the growth that the Cause was experiencing in these decades and the new opportunities and challenges that this growth produced. Far more important than the differences amongst them, however, is the fact that the activities called for in each Plan were extensions of initiatives which had been set in motion by Shoghi Effendi, who in turn had seized up and elaborated strands woven by the Faith’s Founders—the training of Spiritual Assemblies; the translation, production and distribution of literature; the encouragement of universal participation by the friends; attention to the spiritual enrichment of Bahá’í life; efforts toward the involvement of the Bahá’í community in the life of society; the strengthening of Bahá’í family life; and the education of children and youth. While these various processes will continue indefinitely to unfold new possibilities, the fact that each originated in the creative impulse of the Revelation itself lends to everything the Bahá’í community does a unifying force that is both the secret and the guarantee of its ultimate success.
The first two decades of the process were one of the most enriching periods that the Bahá’í community has experienced. Within a remarkably short period of time, the number of Local Spiritual Assemblies multiplied and the ethnic and cultural diversity of the membership became an ever more distinctive feature of Bahá’í life. Although the breakdown of society was creating problems for Bahá’í administrative institutions, a related effect was to generate a greatly increased interest in the message of the Cause. At the outset, the community was introduced to the challenge of “teaching the masses”. By 1967, it was being called on “to launch, on a global scale and to every stratum of human society, an enduring and intensive proclamation of the healing message that the Promised One has come.…”121
As believers from urban centres set out on sustained campaigns to reach the mass of the world’s peoples living in villages and rural areas, they encountered a receptivity to Bahá’u’lláh’s message far beyond anything they had imagined possible. While the response usually took forms very different from the ones with which the teachers had been familiar, the new declarants were eagerly welcomed. Tens of thousands of new Bahá’ís poured into the Cause throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America, often representing the greater part of whole rural villages. The 1960s and 1970s were heady days for a Bahá’í community most of whose growth outside of Iran had been slow and measured. To the friends in the Pacific went the great distinction of attracting into the Cause the first Head of State, His Highness Malietoa Tanumafili II of Samoa, a distinction for which only future events will provide an adequate frame.
At the heart of the development, as has been the case in the life of the Cause from the outset, was the commitment made by the individual believer. Already, during the ministry of Shoghi Effendi, far-sighted persons had taken the initiative to reach indigenous populations in such countries as Uganda, Bolivia and Indonesia. During the Nine Year Plan, ever larger numbers of such teachers were drawn into the work, particularly in India, several countries in Africa, and most regions of Latin America, as well as in islands of the Pacific, Alaska and among the native peoples of Canada and the rural black population of the southern United States. Pioneering brought vital support to the work, encouraging the emergence of groups of teachers among the indigenous believers themselves.
Even so, it soon became apparent that individual initiative alone, however inspired and energetic, could not respond adequately to the opportunities opening up. The result was to launch Bahá’í communities on a wide range of collective teaching and proclamation projects recalling the heroic days of the dawn-breakers. Teams of ardent teachers found that it was now possible to introduce the message of the Faith not merely to a succession of inquirers, but to entire groups and even whole communities. The tens of thousands became hundreds of thousands. The Faith’s growth meant that members of Spiritual Assemblies, whose experience had been limited to confirming the understanding of the Faith of individual applicants raised in cultures of doubt or religious fanaticism, had to adjust to expressions of belief on the part of whole groups of people to whom religious awareness and response were normal features of daily life.
No segment of the community made a more energetic or significant contribution to this dramatic process of growth than did Bahá’í youth. In their exploits during these crucial decades—as, indeed, throughout the entire history of the past one hundred and fifty years—one is reminded again and again that the great majority of the band of heroes who launched the Cause on its course in the middle years of the nineteenth century were all of them young people. The Báb Himself declared His mission when He was twenty-five years old, and Anís, who attained the imperishable glory of dying with his Lord, was only a youth. Quddús responded to the Revelation at the age of twenty-two. Zaynab, whose age was never recorded, was a very young woman. Shaykh ‘Alí, so greatly cherished by both Quddús and Mullá Ḥusayn, was martyred at the age of twenty, while Muḥammad-i-Báqir-Naqsh laid down his life when he was only fourteen. Ṭahirih was in her twenties when she embraced the Báb’s Cause.
Following in the path that these extraordinary figures had opened, thousands of young Bahá’ís arose in subsequent years to proclaim the message of the Faith throughout all five continents and the scattered islands of the globe. As an international youth culture began to emerge in society during the late nineteen sixties and seventies, believers with talent in music, drama and the arts demonstrated something of what Shoghi Effendi had meant when he pointed out: “That day will the Cause spread like wildfire when its spirit and teachings are presented on the stage or in art and literature.…”122 The spirit of zeal and enthusiasm characteristic of youth has also provided an ongoing challenge to the general body of the community to explore ever more audaciously the revolutionary social implications of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings.
The burst of enrolments brought with it, however, equally great problems. At the immediate level, the resources of Bahá’í communities engaged in the work were soon overwhelmed by the task of providing the sustained deepening the masses of new believers needed and the consolidation of the resulting communities and Spiritual Assemblies. Beyond that, cultural challenges like those encountered by the early Persian believers who had first sought to introduce the Faith in Western lands now replicated themselves throughout the world. Theological and administrative principles that might be of consuming interest to pioneers and teachers were seldom those that were central to the concern of new declarants from very different social and cultural backgrounds. Often, differences of view about even such elementary matters as the use of time or simple social conventions created gaps of understanding that made communication extremely difficult.
Initially, such problems proved stimulating as both Bahá’í institutions and individual believers struggled to find new ways of looking at situations—new ways, indeed, of understanding important passages in the Bahá’í Writings themselves. Determined efforts were made to respond to the guidance of the World Centre that expansion and consolidation are twin processes that must go hand in hand. Where hoped for results did not readily materialize, however, a measure of discouragement frequently set in. The initial rapid rise in enrolment rates slowed markedly in many countries, tempting some Bahá’í institutions and communities to turn back to more familiar activities and more accessible publics.
The principal effect of the setbacks, however, was that they brought home to communities that the high expectations of the early years were in some respects quite unrealistic. Although the easy successes of the initial teaching activities were encouraging, they did not, by themselves, build a Bahá’í community life that could meet the needs of its new members and be self-generating. Rather, pioneers and new believers alike faced questions for which Bahá’í experience in Western lands—or even Iran—offered few answers. How were Local Spiritual Assemblies to be established—and once established, how were they to function—in areas where large numbers of new believers had joined the Cause overnight, simply on the strength of their spiritual apprehension of its truth? How, in societies dominated by men since the dawn of time, were women to be accorded an equal voice? How was the education of large numbers of children to be systematically addressed in cultural situations where poverty and illiteracy prevailed? What priorities should guide Bahá’í moral teaching, and how could these objectives best be related to prevailing indigenous conventions? How could a vibrant community life be cultivated that would stimulate the spiritual growth of its members? What priorities, too, should be set with respect to the production of Bahá’í literature, particularly given the sudden explosion that had taken place in the number of languages represented in the community? How could the integrity of the Bahá’í institution of the Nineteen Day Feast be maintained, while opening this vital activity to the enriching influence of diverse cultures? And, in all areas of concern, how were the necessary resources to be recruited, funded, and coordinated?
The pressure of these urgent and interlocking challenges launched the Bahá’í world on a learning process that has proved to be as important as the expansion itself. It is safe to say that during these years there was virtually no type of teaching activity, no combination of expansion, consolidation and proclamation, no administrative option, no effort at cultural adaptation that was not being energetically tried in some part of the Bahá’í world. The net result of the experience was an intensive education of a great part of the Bahá’í community in the implications of the mass teaching work, an education that could have occurred in no other way. By its very nature, the process was largely local and regional in focus, qualitative rather than quantitative in its gains, and incremental rather than large-scale in the progress achieved. Had it not been for the painstaking, always difficult and often frustrating consolidation work pursued during these years, however, the subsequent strategy of systematizing the promotion of entry by troops would have had very little with which to work.
The fact that the Bahá’í message was now penetrating the lives not merely of small groups of individuals but of whole communities also had the effect of reviving a vital feature of an earlier stage in the advancement of the Cause. For the first time in decades, the Faith found itself once more in a situation where teaching and consolidation were inseparably bound up with social and economic development. In the early years of the century, under the guidance of the Master and the Guardian, the Iranian believers—denied the opportunity to participate equally in whatever limited benefits the society of the day offered—had arisen to painstakingly construct a comprehensive community life of a kind beyond either the need or the reach of the relatively isolated Bahá’í groups across North America and Western Europe. In Iran, spiritual and moral advancement, teaching activities, the creation of schools and clinics, the building of administrative institutions, and the encouragement of initiatives aimed at economic self-sufficiency and prosperity—all had been from an early stage inseparable features of one organically unified process of development. Now—in Africa, in Latin America, and parts of Asia—the same challenges and opportunities had re-emerged.
While social and economic development activities had long been under way, particularly in Latin America and Asia, these had been isolated projects carried out by groups of believers under the guidance of individual National Assemblies, and unrelated to any plan. In October 1983, however, Bahá’í communities throughout the world were called on to begin incorporating such efforts into their regular programmes of work. An Office of Social and Economic Development was created at the World Centre to coordinate learning and help seek financial support.
The decade that followed saw wide experimentation in a field of work for which most Bahá’í institutions had little preparation. While striving to benefit from the models being tried by the many development agencies operating around the world, Bahá’í communities faced the challenge of relating what they found in various areas of concern—education, health, literacy, agriculture and communications technology—to their understanding of Bahá’í principles. The temptation was great, given the magnitude of the resources being invested by governments and foundations, and the confidence with which this effort was pursued, merely to borrow methods current at the moment or to adapt Bahá’í efforts to prevailing theories. As the work evolved, however, Bahá’í institutions began turning their attention to the goal of devising development paradigms that could assimilate what they were observing in the larger society to the Faith’s unique conception of human potentialities.
Nowhere was the strategy of the successive Plans so impressively vindicated as was the case in India. The community there has today become a giant of the Cause, numbering well over a million souls. Its work stretches across the expanse of a vast sub-continent, home to an immense diversity of cultures, languages, ethnic groups and religious traditions. In many respects, the experience of this greatly blessed body of believers encapsulates the Bahá’í world’s struggles, experiments, setbacks and victories throughout these critical three decades. The dramatic rise in enrolments had brought with it all of the problems being encountered elsewhere in the world, but on a massive scale. The long road leading the Indian Bahá’í community to its present-day eminence was beset with the most painful difficulties, some of which threatened at times to overwhelm the administrative resources available. The victories won, however, provide a foretaste of the confirmations that will in time bless the efforts of Bahá’í communities struggling with the same challenges on other continents. By 1985, the growth of the Faith in India had reached the point where the needs and opportunities of so many diverse regions called for more sharply focused attention than the National Spiritual Assembly alone could provide. Thus was born the new institution of the Regional Bahá’í Council, setting in motion the process of administrative decentralization that has since proven so effective in many other lands.
In 1986, the expansion and consolidation taking place in India were befittingly crowned with the inauguration of the beautiful “Lotus Temple”. Although the project had raised optimistic expectations as to the impact its completion would have on public recognition of the Faith, the reality has infinitely surpassed the brightest of such hopes. Today, India’s House of Worship has become the foremost visitors’ attraction on the subcontinent, welcoming an average of over ten thousand visitors every day, and featuring prominently in publications, films and television productions. The interest aroused in a Faith that could inspire and embody itself in so magnificent a creation has given new meaning to the description by ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá of Bahá’í Temples as “silent teachers” of the Faith.
The progress of the Indian Bahá’í community, both in its internal development and its relationship with the larger society, was illustrated by a pioneering initiative undertaken in November 2000 in the field of social and economic development. Taking advantage of the reputation it had deservedly won among progressive circles in the country, the National Spiritual Assembly hosted, in collaboration with the Bahá’í International Community’s newly created Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity,123 a symposium on the subject of “Science, Religion and Development”. The project engaged the participation of over one hundred of the most influential development organizations in the country and inspired national media coverage. Marking out a distinctive Bahá’í contribution to the promotion of social advancement, the event set the stage for symposia of the same kind in Africa, Latin America and other regions, where creative Bahá’í communities can help shape what may well become one of the Faith’s major success stories.
During these same years, the Asian continent also saw the sudden emergence of the Malaysian Bahá’í community as an engine of the expansion work, winning its own goals with stunning speed and dispatching pioneers and travelling teachers to neighbouring lands. A development that made this dramatic advance possible was the bonds of spiritual partnership that had been woven between believers of Chinese and Indian backgrounds. Visitors to Malaysia spoke, with something approaching awe, of the way in which the Malaysian community, although working under many constraints and disabilities, seemed to be the very embodiment of the military metaphors with which Shoghi Effendi’s writings seek to capture the spirit of Bahá’í teaching efforts.
Neither the world-wide growth of the Bahá’í community nor the process of learning it was experiencing, however, tell the whole story of these tumultuous and creative decades. When the history of the period is eventually written, one of its most brilliant chapters will recount the spiritual victories won by Bahá’í communities, in Africa particularly, who survived war, terror, political oppression and extreme privations, and who emerged from these tests with their faith intact, determined to resume the interrupted work of building a viable Bahá’í collective life. The community in Ethiopia, homeland of one of the world’s oldest and richest cultural traditions, succeeded in maintaining both the morale of its members and the coherence of its administrative structures under relentless pressure from a brutal dictatorship. Of the friends in other countries on the continent, it may be truly said that their path of faithfulness to the Cause led through a hell of suffering seldom equalled in modern history. The annals of the Faith possess few more moving testimonies to the sheer power of the spirit than the stories of courage and purity of heart emerging from the inferno that engulfed the friends in what was then Zaire, stories that will inspire generations to come and represent priceless contributions to the creation of a global Bahá’í culture. Such countries as Uganda and Rwanda added unforgettable achievements of their own to this record of heroic struggle.
Inspiring, too, was the demonstration of the capacity for renewal that is inherent in the Cause and which emerged in Cambodian refugee camps along the Thailand border. Through the heroic efforts of a handful of teachers, Local Spiritual Assemblies were established among people who had survived a campaign of genocide almost beyond the capacity of the human heart to contemplate, who had lost countless loved ones as well as everything they possessed in the way of material security, but in whom still burned the longing of the human soul for spiritual truth. An extraordinary achievement of a related kind was that of the Liberian Bahá’í community. Driven from their homes into exile in neighbouring lands, many of these intrepid believers transported with them their whole community life, setting up Local Spiritual Assemblies, carrying on teaching work, continuing the education of their children, using their time to learn new skills, and finding in music, dance and drama powers of the spirit that helped keep hope alive until they could return to their country.
As the process of education in methods of mass teaching was taking place, the Faith’s membership was being transformed. In 1992, the Bahá’í world celebrated its second Holy Year, this one marking the centenary of the ascension of Bahá’u’lláh and the promulgation of His Covenant. More eloquently than words could have done, the ethnic, cultural and national diversity of the 27,000 believers who gathered at the Javits Convention Center in New York City—together with the thousands present at nine auxiliary conferences in Bucharest, Buenos Aires, Moscow, Nairobi, New Delhi, Panama City, Singapore, Sydney and Western Samoa—provided compelling evidence of the success of Bahá’í teaching work around the world. An affecting moment occurred when the network of satellite broadcasts linked the gathering in Moscow with the one taking place in New York City, and Bahá’ís everywhere thrilled to greetings in Russian—the common language of some 280 million people from at least fifteen countries—that proclaimed a new phase in humanity’s response to Bahá’u’lláh.
In the Moscow and Bucharest conferences could be glimpsed the rebirth of Bahá’í communities that had been nearly extinguished under the oppression of the Soviet regime and its collaborators. One of the last three surviving Hands of the Cause, ‘Alí-Akbar Furútan, who had lived in Russia, had the great joy of returning to Moscow, at the age of eighty-six, for the inaugural election of the National Assembly of that country. Local Spiritual Assemblies sprang up in all of the newly opened lands, and six new National Spiritual Assemblies were elected. In a brief space of time, pioneering and teaching activities in countries along the southern rim of the former Soviet empire—where the Faith had been similarly proscribed—soon brought into existence still more Local Assemblies and eight additional National Spiritual Assemblies. Bahá’í literature was translated into a range of new languages, energetic steps were taken to secure civil recognition of Bahá’í institutions, and representatives from Eastern Europe and the countries of the now vanished Soviet bloc began participating with their fellow believers in the external affairs work of the Faith at the international level.
Gradually, too, the message of the Faith began to find a welcome in many parts of China and among Chinese populations abroad. Bahá’í literature was translated into Mandarin, university audiences in many Chinese cities extended invitations to Bahá’í scholars, a Centre for Bahá’í Studies was established at the prestigious Institute of World Religions in Beijing,124 which operates within the Academy of Social Sciences, and many Chinese dignitaries have been generous in their appreciation of the principles they discover in the Writings. In light of the high praise of the Master for Chinese civilization and its role in humanity’s future, one begins to anticipate the creative contribution that believers from this background will make to the intellectual and moral life of the Cause in the years ahead.125
The significance of these three decades of struggle, learning and sacrifice became apparent when the moment arrived to devise a global Plan that would capitalize on the insights gained and the resources that had been developed. The Bahá’í community that set out on the Four Year Plan in 1996 was a very different one from the eager, but new and still inexperienced body of believers who, in 1964, had ventured out on the first of such undertakings that were no longer sustained by the guiding hand of Shoghi Effendi. By 1996, it had become possible to see all of the distinct strands of the enterprise as integral parts of one coherent whole.
With this education had also come a much needed perspective on what had been accomplished. The expansion of the Cause over the preceding three decades had represented the response of several million human beings who had been affected by their encounter with the message of Bahá’u’lláh to the point that they were moved to identify themselves in varying degrees with the Cause of God. They were aware that a new Messenger of the Divine had appeared, had caught something of the spirit of faith, and had been strongly affected by the Bahá’í teaching of the oneness of humankind. A small minority among them were able to go beyond this point. For the most part, however, these friends were essentially recipients of teaching programmes conducted by teachers and pioneers from outside. One of the great strengths of the masses of humankind from among whom the newly enrolled believers came lies in an openness of heart that has the potentiality to generate lasting social transformation. The greatest handicap of these same populations has so far been a passivity learned through generations of exposure to outside influences which, no matter how great their material advantages, have pursued agendas that were often related only tangentially—if at all—to the realities of the needs and daily lives of indigenous peoples.
The Four Year Plan, which was a major advance on those that immediately preceded it, was designed to take advantage of the opportunities and insights thus offered. The goal of advancing the process of entry by troops became the single-minded aim of the enterprise. The lessons that had been learned during earlier Plans now placed the emphasis on developing the capacities of believers—wherever they might be—so that all could arise as confident protagonists of the Faith’s mission. The instrument to accomplish this objective had been undergoing steady refinement during the earlier Plans and had demonstrated its efficacy.
As with most of the other methods and activities by which the Faith was advancing, this instrument had likewise been conceived decades earlier by the Master, who calls in the Tablets of the Divine Plan for deepened believers to “gather together the youths of the love of God in schools of instruction and teach them all the divine proofs and irrefragable arguments, explain and elucidate the history of the Cause, and interpret also the prophecies and proofs which are recorded and are extant in the divine books and epistles regarding the manifestation of the Promised One.…”126 Pioneering work and organized training of this nature had already been done in Iran, during the early years of the century, by the much-loved Ṣadru’ṣ-Ṣudúr.127 As the years passed, winter and summer schools had multiplied, and successive Plans also encouraged experimentation in the development of Bahá’í institutes.
By far the most significant advance in this latter respect occurred over a period of more than two decades, beginning in the 1970s in Colombia, where a systematic and sustained programme of education in the Writings was devised and soon adopted in neighbouring countries. Influenced by the Colombian community’s parallel efforts in the field of social and economic development, the breakthrough was all the more impressive in the fact that it was achieved against a background of violence and lawlessness that was deranging the life of the surrounding society.
The Colombian achievement proved a source of great inspiration and example to Bahá’í communities elsewhere in the world. By the time the Four Year Plan ended, over one hundred thousand believers were involved world-wide in the programmes of the more than three hundred permanent training institutes. In accomplishing this goal, a majority of regional institutes had carried the process a stage further by creating networks of “study circles” which utilize the talents of believers to replicate the work of the institute at a local level. It is already apparent that the success of the institute work has significantly reinforced the long-term process by which a universal system of Bahá’í education will take shape.128
Although the struggles of these decades were relatively modest—at least when set against the standard of the Heroic Age—they provide the present generation of Bahá’ís with a window on what Shoghi Effendi describes as the cyclical nature of the Faith’s history: “a series of internal and external crises, of varying severity, devastating in their immediate effects, but each mysteriously releasing a corresponding measure of divine power, lending thereby a fresh impulse to its unfoldment.”129 These words put into perspective the succession of efforts, experiments, heartbreaks and victories that characterized the beginning of large-scale teaching, and prepared the Bahá’í community for the much greater challenges ahead.
Throughout history, the masses of humanity have been, at best, spectators at the advance of civilization. Their role has been to serve the designs of whatever elite had temporarily assumed control of the process. Even the successive Revelations of the Divine, whose objective was the liberation of the human spirit, were, in time, taken captive by “the insistent self”, were frozen into man-made dogma, ritual, clerical privilege and sectarian quarrels, and reached their end with their ultimate purpose frustrated.
Bahá’u’lláh has come to free humanity from this long bondage, and the closing decades of the twentieth century were devoted by the community of His followers to creative experimentation with the means by which His objective can be realized. The prosecution of the Divine Plan entails no less than the involvement of the entire body of humankind in the work of its own spiritual, social and intellectual development. The trials encountered by the Bahá’í community in the decades since 1963 are those necessary ones that refine endeavour and purify motivation so as to render those who would take part worthy of so great a trust. Such tests are the surest evidences of that process of maturation which ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá so confidently described:
Some movements appear, manifest a brief period of activity, then discontinue. Others show forth a greater measure of growth and strength, but before attaining mature development, weaken, disintegrate and are lost in oblivion.… There is still another kind of movement or cause which from a very small, inconspicuous beginning goes forward with sure and steady progress, gradually broadening and widening until it has assumed universal dimensions. The Bahá’í Movement is of this nature.130