Under the inspired guidance of Shoghi Effendi the Bahá’í Cause grew steadily in size and in the establishment of its Administrative Order, so that by 1951 there were eleven functioning National Spiritual Assemblies. At that point the Guardian turned to the development of the institutions of the Faith at its international level, appointing the International Bahá’í Council, the forerunner of the Universal House of Justice, and, shortly thereafter, the first contingent of the Hands of the Cause of God. Hitherto Shoghi Effendi has raised certain eminent Bahá’ís to the rank of Hands of the Cause posthumously, one of them being Dr. John E. Esslemont, but it was only in 1951 that he adjudged the time ripe to begin the full development of this important institution. In rapid succession between 1951 and 1957 he appointed thirty-two Hands and extended the range of their activities, instituting in each continent Auxiliary Boards consisting of believers and appointed by the Hands to be their deputies, assistants and advisors. Twenty-seven of these Hands were living at the time of his passing.
Through a series of letters, some addressed to Bahá’ís throughout the world, and others to those in specific countries, the Guardian deepened their understanding of the teachings, built up the administrative institutions of the Faith, trained the believers in their correct and effective use, and in 1937 launched the American Bahá’í Community on its implementation of the Divine Plan for the diffusion of Bahá’u’lláh’s Message. This Divine Plan had been revealed by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in a number of Tablets written during the years of the First World War and constitutes the charter for the propagation of the Faith.
Within the framework of this charter a number of teaching plans were carried out, first in the Western Hemisphere, then also in Europe, Asia, Australasia and Africa until in 1953 the Guardian called for a “decade-long, world-embracing, spiritual crusade” to carry the Faith to all the remaining independent states and principal dependencies of the world.
As Shoghi Effendi had no heir, the work of the Faith after November 1957 was coordinated and directed by the twenty-seven Hands of the Cause until the victorious completion of the crusade in April 1963, at which time the first Universal House of Justice was elected by the members of fifty-six National Spiritual Assemblies convened at the Bahá’í World Center in Haifa by the Hands of the Cause.
Immediately following this historic election, Bahá’ís from all parts of the globe gathered in London at the first World Congress of the Faith to celebrate the Centenary of the Declaration of Bahá’u’lláh and to rejoice in the worldwide spread of His Faith.
The supreme institution of the Faith today is the Universal House of Justice, created by Bahá’u’lláh in His Most Holy Book, invested with authority to legislate on all matters not covered in the Bahá’í Writings, and assured divine guidance in the Sacred Text itself. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in His Will and testament, lays down the method of election of the Universal House of Justice, defines its station and duties more clearly, and asserts that it is under the direct guidance of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh and is the body to which all must turn.
The unique and distinguishing feature of the Bahá’í Faith is the Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh, the bedrock upon which the Faith raises all its structures and bases its development. Its uniqueness is that for the first time in religious history the Manifestation of God, in clear and unambiguous language, provides for the authorized interpretation of His Word, and ensures the continuity of the divinely appointed authority which flows from the Source of the Faith.
Interpretation of Scripture has always in earlier religions been a most fertile source of schism. Bahá’u’lláh, in the Book of His Covenant, vested in His eldest son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, full powers for the interpretation of His Writings and for the direction of His Cause. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in His Will and Testament, appointed His eldest grandson, Shoghi Effendi, Guardian of the Faith and sole interpreter of the Writings. There is no priesthood within the Faith and no individual may claim special station or guidance; authority is vested in institutions created within the Bahá’í Scriptures.
By virtue of these unique provisions, the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh has been preserved from schism, from the depredations of unauthorized leadership, and above all from the infiltration of man-made doctrines and theories, which in the past have shattered the unity of religions. Pure and inviolate, the revealed Word of Bahá’u’lláh, with its authorized interpretation, remains throughout the Dispensation the uncorrupted and incorruptible source of spiritual life to men.
In 1968 the Universal House of Justice took action to provide for the future carrying out of the specific functions of protection and propagation vested in the Hands of the Cause, by the establishment of Continental Boards of Counselors. Each Board consists of a number of Counselors appointed by the Universal House of Justice, and they work in close collaboration with the Hands of the Cause of God. The appointment and direction of Auxiliary Boards is now the duty of the Boards of Counselors, and the activities of the Hands, of whom just one is still living, have been extended to be worldwide. In June 1973 the Universal House of Justice established in the Holy Land an International Teaching Centre and assigned it the activities of the Continental Board of Counselors and as liaison between them and the Universal House of Justice.
The Guardian had written of future global teaching plans to be carried out under the direction of the Universal House of Justice, and the first of these, a Nine Year Plan, was launched in 1964. This was followed by a Five Year Plan (1974–1979), a Seven Year Plan (1979–1986), a Six Year Plan (1986–1992), a Three Year Plan (1993–1996), a Four Year Plan (1996–2000), a Twelve Month Plan (2000–2001), and a Five Year Plan, which will terminate at Riḍván 2006. By early 2006, the Bahá’í Faith had been established in 191 independent states and 45 dependent territories or overseas departments; There were Bahá’ís living in over 100,000 localities throughout the world; Bahá’í literature had been translated into at least 802 languages; an eighth Bahá’í Temple had completed in India in 1986, and plans for construction of a ninth Temple in Santiago, Chile, were under way; there were 179 National or Regional Spiritual Assemblies and at least five million Bahá’ís. Bahá’ís are now energetically pursuing a Five Year Plan designed to further expand and consolidate the growth of the Faith throughout the world.
Most encouraging of all has been the response of the peoples of Africa, India, Southeast Asia and Latin America, where large numbers have begun to enter the Cause, bringing about a new stage in the development of the administrative and social activities of the worldwide Bahá’í community.