The Greatest Name symbol of the Baha'i Faith

The Greatest Name symbol of the Baha’i Faith Public domain

Earlier this month, I took exception to a Washington Post map purporting to show the second largest religious tradition (after Christianity) in each state of the Union. A significant number of them were wrong, I claimed, because they relied on the inflated estimates of religious bodies rather than on telephone surveys of individuals.

None of the purported “seconds” was more surprising than the Bahá’í Faith in South Carolina. How could this rather obscure 19th-century world religion, with a total claimed U.S. population of 174,00, have more adherents in the Palmetto State than Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism?

Well, it turns out there’s a good answer to that question. In the early 1960s, national leaders of the faith began making a concerted effort to reach African Americans in the South. By the early 1970s, teams of Bahá’ís (themselves mostly African-American) were going door-to-door in rural South Carolina and Florida, preaching their message of the unity of God, humanity, and all religions, and proclaiming their founder, Bahá’u’lláh, as the return of Christ. (Bahá’ís believe that Bahá’u’lláh is the most recent in a succession of divine messengers — including Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Krishna, and Buddha — who established a religion appropriate to their time and place.)

“They responded with remarkable interest,” Robert Stockman, the foremost historian of the Bahá’í Faith in America, wrote in an email. “I experienced this in 1979 when I went out mass teaching over Christmas vacation in central Florida. We literally drove over the railroad tracks. The pavement stopped. We drove down the dirt roads, rolled down our windows and said to people sitting on their porches ‘can we talk to you about religion?’ They said yes and we went over to them with a picture book, which we reviewed. When we asked people whether they believed, they said often ‘yes.’ We didn’t enroll them; there had to be followup.”

Stockman pointed out, however, that in South Carolina there often wasn’t followup. As he writes in his book, The Bahá’í Faith: A Guide for the Perplexed:

In the past, people were enrolled as Bahá’ís when they had acquired more than a little basic knowledge, but now the criterion for membership was possession of the spark of faith; it was assumed that knowledge would follow later. But teams of visiting Bahá’í teachers were not present long enough to follow up, and it was difficult for later teams to find newly declared believers who lived in houses that lacked street numbers (which was often the case in the rural south).

To consolidate the new members of the faith, an institute was established in Hemingway, S.C. in 1972, as well as the nation’s only Bahá’í radio station, WLGI (“Promoting love, peace, and unity”), in 1984. By the mid-1980s, there were over 20,000 on the rolls in South Carolina, more than in any other state. But, Stockman acknowledges, 30 years later just 4,500 of the 17,500 members in the state currently recorded in the national Bahá’í database have good addresses. “All we can say about the other 13,000 is that they are not active enough as Bahá’ís to update their address when they moved.”

So is the Bahá’í Faith the second most populous religion after Christianity in South Carolina? The 2013 American Jewish Yearbook lists the state as having fewer than 14,000 Jews. Given what Stockman has to say, I’m prepared to stick to my original claim that Judaism is the (very distant) second most populous religion there. Still, a significant portion of those 13,000 Bahá’ís listed but without updated addresses — many of them low-income African Americans who could be missed by phone surveys – may still consider themselves members of the faith. 

So who knows? The really interesting story has to do with the successful Bahá’í outreach to rural blacks in the South in the latter part of the 20th century. It’s hard not to believe that something about the universalist appeal of the faith struck a chord during the Civil Rights era and its aftermath.

Categories: Institutions

Beliefs:

Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

13 Comments

  1. Randall Dighton

    I was one of the Baha’i teachers in SC in the 70′s, along with a number of friends from Southern California. I met some of the most delightful people past “where the road ended.” They will live in my memory always.
    Something to consider: although there are only about 174,000 registered Baha’is in the US, in the 2010 census more than 2 million people stated their religion as Baha’i. In my grandson’s case, he’s never declared his belief officially, but stated his religion as Baha’i when he joined the Marines. He’d “rather be wrong with Baha’i than right with anything else.”

  2. Thanks for this article Mr. Silk. It has prodded me to Google the B’hai faith to try to learn about the faith and at least understand what the B’hais believe. Would that a compartive religion class was offered and taught to me in high school and/or college. Most religions have as the central tenet of their faith the Creator’s love for us. If that is so, and we, as humans, whatever religion we follow, would take the time to try to understand and learn from each others faith’s then perhaps we would be a lot less inclined to condemn each others religion’s and instead try to accept each other for who we are and to love one another as most religions do teach but we as the human race seem to ignore. I know I’d feel much better about our chances of surviving as a species if this was the case. Understanding, tolerence and love of one another, what a concept! No wars over religion and a real chance of survival as a species! Oh, how I wish that this were true and attainable!

  3. Marilyn Higgins

    Someone asked if Randall Dighton’s comment could be true about 2 million people in the US considering themselves Baha’i, though they have never officially registered a members of the Baha’i Faith. I have heard that is also the case in Australia. I have known a number of friends there who “practice without a license” so-to-speak, nourishing themselves on the Baha’i Writings, and even telling others about the Faith, although not actually enrolled or in touch with the Baha’i community. The Australian census came up with a community several times larger than the Baha’is knew about from their own rolls. Good news travels…

    • A 1993 Christian survey of our numbers came up with a little over 13 million and that must be those who identify with the faith not necessarily registered.

  4. Marilyn Higgins

    I have heard that is also the case in Australia. I have known a number of friends there who “practice without a license” so-to-speak, nourishing themselves on the Baha’i Writings, and even telling others about the Faith, although not actually enrolled or in touch with the Baha’i community. The Australian census came up with a community several times larger than the Baha’is knew about from their own rolls. Good news travels…

  5. Personally I wouldn’t trust anything regarding population that Baha’is utter. One of their leaders, Abdu’l-Baha had been claiming that he had something between 2 million to 40 million followers worldwide in 1912 when he went to America (numbers are based on newspaper articles published in 1912 in America). The source of some of these numbers is unknown but the newspapers have explicitly mentioned Abdu’l-Baha uttering the number 2 million and 10 million. Just to get an idea of how exaggerated these numbers are, in 1954 the worldwide Baha’i population was only 213,000!

    Sources and scans of the newspapers can be found in the book: “Twelve Principles: A Comprehensive investigation on the Baha’i Teachings” pp. 436-451 which can be downloaded from:
    www.avazedohol.com/eng/index.php/download

    P.S. Newspaper articles were all taken from www.Bahai.us, for instance here is one sample that mentions 2 million followers:
    http://centenary.bahai.us/news/abdul-baha-and-chicago
    and another that mentions 10 million:
    http://centenary.bahai.us/news/abdul-baha-abbas-comes-lecture-bahai-religion

    You’ll find a nice discussion in the book and a lot of goodies that you had probably never heard of before about the twelve Baha’i principles in the book.

    • Jonathan Menon

      Hossein,

      It is true that early newspaper articles about the Bahá’í Faith in the United States exaggerated the number of Bahá’ís in the world. But although such numbers often appear in newspaper articles about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, or even in articles that are primarily interviews with him, he never gave numbers like that personally.

      A number of American Bahá’ís at the time did give numbers like that, perhaps some of them really believing that there were that many, and others unconsciously magnifying the numbers, some to make a bigger splash and some probably because they had heard those numbers stated by others. When a reporter was writing an article, he or she would often speak with other Bahá’ís who were perhaps one of a crowd of people who were visiting ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s hotel suite at the same time, and these Bahá’ís did often tell the reporters these numbers, which were, of course, false. If you read these articles carefully, however, you will see that such numbers were never given out by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.

      I have copies of virtually all the newspaper and magazine articles about the Bahá’í Faith from 1912–there are more than 500 of them. There is one article, which I can’t locate just at the minute because I do not have it OCR’d, in which the reporter asks ‘Abdu’l-Bahá point blank if there are really forty or twenty million Bahá’ís. And he says: Oh no, there are no more than about two hundred thousand in total. Virtually all of those were in Iran and other countries of the Near East at the time. He never himself gave larger numbers than that.

      • Jonathan,

        You must be speaking about this paper:
        http://centenary.bahai.us/news/disciples-here-hail-abdul-baha

        The text says:

        “Twenty million? Oh, no. Perhaps 2,00[text missing]000 the world over.”

        This is a reference to 2,000,000 not 200,000 because the comma ‘,’ is used to separate three digits starting from the right. No one would write two hundred thousand like this: “2,00000″ or this “2,00,000″. This number is also mentioned in a paper the following day:
        http://centenary.bahai.us/news/abdul-baha-and-chicago

        In this paper “HE” is explicitly mentioned to note that Abdu’l-Baha provided the number:

        “He estimates the number of his followers at about 2,000,000, about 5,000 of these being in this country.”

        The article in the book mentions a few more numbers and interesting points.

        • Jonathan Menon

          Yes, you’re right. I suppose I was confused by two things. First, that missing text in the article. The text is only missing in the version that the centenary.bahai.us site displays. Those articles are from photocopies in their archives, and they are of varying quality. This version, at the Library of Congress, displays the complete number (2,000,000 — two million) very clearly –> http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030272/1912-04-12/ed-1/seq-5/

          I was also misled by the fact that I have actually seen in newspapers of that era numbers like one hundred thousand written like this — 1,00,000 — that is, with the comma in the wrong place. The combination of these two problems led me to misinterpret the number as 200,000 when it is in fact two million.

          Yet, in contrast to the very large numbers that show up in some newspaper articles from 1912, the Baha’i community nowadays tends to be very conservative in the numbers they give for membership. The Baha’i World Center will only state that there appear to be “more than five million” Baha’is in the world, whereas other independent sources give numbers approaching eight million.

          Thanks for clearing up my mistake.

  6. Even in this country are anti-smoking regulations on paper,
    the authorities are fierce neglect their implementation.

    Many IT help desk software programs offer
    the convenience of a user-friendly menu and easy-to-manage files.

    These kind of creatures can be introduced to the particular
    lip area through licking these people or perhaps could possibly be brought on by
    putting on false teeth while dentures is usually a suitable location for microorganisms to grow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments with many links may be automatically held for moderation.