LA Study Class Newsletter [#6]

My Notes:This newsletter discusses Covenant-Breakers in general and the remnants of the Baha’is who were declared covenant breakers in Akka, specifically. In contrast to what most Baha’is say, the truth is that the Baha’i Faith did suffer schisms and splinter groups. However, they are extremely small and without any real significance. It is important to note that eventhough individual Baha’is are instructed to sever all ties and dealings with covenant breakers, often in the history of the Faith, the Central Figures have continued to be in touch with them and have in many instances given them repeated chances to repent and re-join the community. I’m not aware of the Guardian engaging in this, but Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha, certainly did so repeatedly.

As you will read below, these splinter communities still exist today in Israel (to some degree). They have not thrived but neither have they dissapeared. In fact there is a ‘Baha’i House’ right at the foot of Mount Carmel (near Ben Gurion’s roundabout) and as the paper cited explains, there is also a small Akka community. Its quite fascinating that many of the people in these remaining splinter communities are physical descendants of Baha’u’llah.

(There is also a fantastic treatment of Kheirella’s defection in another newsletter, but since that is somewhere in the 1983 files, you’ll have to be patient.)

In the newsletter below it states that no one knows why Remey made his claim. But, Charles Mason Remey’s reasons are clear, to those who have been curious enough to investigate them – something which Baha’is are allowed, although some may say, discouraged, to do. He claimed that he was Abdu’l-Baha’s adopted son, having gotten this notion from the Master’s reference to him as a ‘son’ in a Tablet. To most, it is clear, that this is simply the loving, and most Persian, hyperbole of Abdu’l-Baha and in no way constitutes a legal or binding literal understanding of the words. And in no way does it abrogate the clear scriptural definition of lineage and descendant as used in the Will and Testament of Abdu’l-Baha. But somehow, this is all explained away using dazzling mental gymnatics.

Before proceeding, you might also want to read the introduction to the LA study class, here.

On with the 70′s class . . .

[Ed. home address]
January 3, 1977
Dear Baha’i Friends:

The package being sent out from the Baha’i class is unusually large this time but it contains a real gold mine of informatin and correspondence. If you skim throuth the pages you will see that Denis MacEoin’s eagerly awaited reply to our letter of November 27th discussion (summarised in the letter of December 5) arrived. A copy is being sent to everyone on the mailing list. Those of you who like a good fight will have a feast.

It is not surprising that the arguments raised in the discussion failed to convince Mr. MacEoin (pronounced Mc-Que-in), academic arguments rarely end with one side convincing the other. But the exchange of ideas has proved to be tremendously exciting. We should all feel grateful to Mr. MacEoin for taking a good deal of time to formulate a careful response for us and for helping to further the international sharing of ideas, which is one of the goals of the class.

Also enclosed, is a letter accompanying Mr. MacEoin’s reply which the members may find interesting. It contains some information about classes similar to ours in the British Isles, as well as some very kind statements about our humble efforts.

Further enclosed is Robert Ballanger’s summary of the class meeting of January 2nd. Unfortunately, Greg Wahlstrom’s presentation on “The Calamity” was not ready at this class and was rescheduled for January 23rd at 2pm. So the discussion centred on Mr. Ballenger’s report on the article “The Baha’i Community of Acre” by Erik Cohen, Folklore Research Center Studies, 3 (1973) pp. 119-141 [Ed. code or Dewey call-number of some sort follows]. This was followed by an impromptu reading of a few pages of Vernon E. Johnson’s Ph.D. dissertation, “An Historical Analysis of Critical Transformations in the Evolution of the Baha’i World Faith” (Baylor Univeristy, 1974) [Ed. available from Bell and Howell Information and Learning] on the dissention within the ranks of Mason Remey’s followers.

THE NEXT CLASS will be held at the home of Anthony Lee on Sunday, January 9th at 3:00 pm. [Ed. home address follows] THE CLASS WILL FEATURE two presentations: one, a report on two articles by James Keene in Sociometry and The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion on the Faith and a presentation by Bernie Barnes on “The Baha’i Theory of Personality”.

THE CLASS AFTER THAT will be held on Sunday, January 23rd at 3 pm also at Anthony Lee’s house. It will include a presentation by Jon Henderson on Paul’s symbolism in Corinthians I and Greg Wahlstrom’s analysis of “The Calamity” in the writings of Shoghi Effendi. Don’t miss it.

With Baha’i love,

Anthony A. Lee
[Ed. signed below]

P.S. I will be out of town next week but I will leave the key with someone.

Notes from the study group meeting of Jan. 2, 1977.

Attendance at study class is on a steady increase, hitting 15 at the latest meeting. Tony Lee, at whose apartment the meeting were held, invited all present to stay for a Mexican-style dinner. Happily, we all survived. Actually, the food was delicious. And Tony showed he had mastered an old family mealtime recipe: starve the guests and, by the time the food arrives, they’ll eat anything and love it.

With several persons on hand for the first time, Tony, our impromptu host and chief schemer and eminence mauve (the eminence grise was at the cleaner’s; we had to settle for the next available shade) again explained the purpose of the class, to wit, an open discussion of the Baha’i Faith, with no taboo subjects.

We also agreed that poor ol’ Tony should not have to foot the bill for mailing out these summaries. As a graduate student, he is a permanent member of the poverty class and could qualify for food stamps. Anyhow, it was more or less agreed by common consent that members of the class ought to chip in some money to help offset postage costs so you can perous this bilious material. But no amount was fixed, so Tony probably wound up collecting around $1.87. The moral of the story is , next time you come to class, bring money.

After some brief consultation, it was decided to retain the existing class structure in which some volunteer presents what amounts to a paper on some aspect of the Faith while everyone else present uses its points as a springboard for discussion. Following a break, a second part is devoted to an open forum in which pet peeves and various bits of mental effuvia about the Faith are trotted out and beaten to a pulp. It’s the closest thing we have to an exorcism ritual.

Bob Ballenger presented a paper on the covenant breakers of Akka, a small group of dissident Baha’is who told Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi to take a hike, and as a result, have to stand in a corner forever. While Ballenger’s paper was (mercifully) short, an even shorter summation will be outlined here. (Well, if you showed up to the classes instead of reading this precis, you’d get the whole wazoo. If you want to know just how short the summary of Ballenger’s paper is going to be, you just read it. All seriousness aside, here is the summation.)

The paper is based on Eric Cohen’s study for UCLA’s Folklore Research Center on the topic of “The Baha’i Community of Acre” (1972). Essentially, Cohen focuses on a small group (probably less than 100 persons, although he writes “several score” without mentioning a specific figure) of dissident Baha’is (or “covenant breakers” as we somewhat inelegantly call them) still living in Akka, Israel. Cohen’s study focuses on the dwindling band as it winds down to probable extinction.

The Baha’is of Acre, as Cohen calls this “residual religious community” (his definition of a group too small inactive to qualify for sect status) splif off from the authority of Abdu’l-Baha sometime in the early 1900′s, although Cohen does not pin down the date or the event that led to the rupture. At that time, the covenant breakers and those Baha’is who remained loyal to Abdu’l-Baha were about numerically equal.

Many Baha’is are under the impression that covenant breaking occurs at transitions of leadership in the Faith. This is not quite accurate. Cohen’s paper makes it clear that the Baha’is of Akka, accepted the authority of Abdu’l-Baha and, those who joined their ranks later, recognized Shoghi Effendi as the rightful heir and Guardian of the Faith. The splits came over doctrinal matters. Abdu’l-Baha’is emphasis on spreading the Faith to the West and Shogi Effendi’s dedication to raising up the administrative order led the dissidents to say, in effect, “Hold it, this is not the Baha’i Faith!” Cohen writes that while the Master and the Guardian regarded the universalization of the Faith as an essential virtue, “the Acre Baha’is conceived of it rather as a sell out to the West.”

For a while the dissident Baha’is tried to mount what was, in effect, a competing Baha’i Faith, the Baha’i World Federation, presided over by one Amin Effendi, a descendent of Baha’u’llah. But the group never attempted to form a local spiritual assembly in Akka and the Baha’i World Federation, apparently never amounted to much. One of the maddening things about Cohen’s is that while he mentions the creation of this organizationand dates its inception about 1950, he provides no clue as to its current status and activity (if any).

One reason the dissident Baha’is amount to small change is because they tried a legal coup against Shoghi Effendi in early 1950′s and got clobbered. As a result, when the dust settled, the covenant breakers lost control of all Baha’i properties and now have only limited access to the Shrine of Baha’u’llah in Bahji.

Their apparent spiritual collapse is coupled with a virtual civil isolation and Cohen writes the six extended families that make up the Baha’is of Akka “are clearly separated from the rest of society.” To make matters worse, they have indulged in infighting amongst themselves. It has not all been the suffering the wrath of God — as we Baha’is might like to believe. The covenant breakers have become, in some instance, land owners in Akka, which makes them something of a status class in that poor city. But, even so, they remain virtually social outcasts in the eyes of the Muslim population of Akka despite attempts to blend into the local scenery. Cohen writes that many of the dissident Baha’is have become shopkeepers and — you’ll love this next part — “wholesalers of groceries and wines.”

Although it is not Cohen’s intention to do so, his study reveals the long term effects of covenant breaking. A quote from his paper says it all:

“The Baha’is of Acre do not live a live oriented predominantly, or even primarily, towards religion, as could be expected of a group descended from the Founder of the Faith and his closest companions. Outwardly, they do not manifest any signs of specific Baha’i religiousity: they did not form a local “spiritual assembly”, nor do they possess their own place for religous observances. As they explain it, religion is for them an individual and personal matter. Some of my informants claimed that Baha’ism is not really a religion, but a way of life, something one carries in one’s heart; outside manifestations of religiosity are hence unimportant. A person remains a Baha’i, in this sense, even if he marries into another faith. However little they manifest their faith outwardly, the Baha’is assured me that they remained steadfastly attached to their Baha’i identity.”

Well, the dissident Baha’is may think that they have their faith in their hearts, but Cohen’s research makesit clear they are on the endangered species list. He writes that, under the present circumstances, the covenant breakers “will not be able to continue to exist as a distinct religious group for more than one or at most two generations.” In an attempt to curry favor or to blend in with the local populace, the dissident Baha’is made a serious boo-boo (its a talent they seem to possess in abundance) in 1948, when Israel conducted its first official census, by listing themselves as — are you ready for this [Ed. text appears to show 'socko', while intention was probably:] cookoo characterization? — “Baha’is-Muslims.”

Beyond this, the dissident Baha’is are dying out from sheer religious attrition. Cohen notes that many of the women marry Muslims. The men, however, do not. The reason is that Muslim fathers are reluctant to give their daughters in marriage to persons they consider to be religious heretics. The attempts by dissident Baha’is to submerge themselves in Akka’s Muslim culture, evidently, is failing. So the men either marry Christian, Jewish or, in some cases, women from covenant breaking families in Iran, imported to the Holy Land. It is not clear from Cohen’s paper just how this works.

The final outcome of this history of covenant breaking is a sad one to report and it is fraught with irony. But let Cohen tell it in his own words: “Our evidence then points to the conclusion that the Baha’is of Acre are gradually being re-absorbed by Islam owing to external isolation from the larger Baha’i community and to lack of internal cohesion.”

The presentation of this paper led to a general discussion of covenant breaking and its results. A couple of notes from that palaver are of special interest. It was pointed out, that at some future date, the last tattered remnants of the band of covenant breakers will probably be reconverted to the Baha’i Faith. They could have saved themselves (and everyone else, too) by not bugging out to begin with.

Easily the most important point made was that covenant-breaking is an ego related disease, one that strikes when some individual decides he is an authority and can tell other Baha’is what to do. This is a crucial point. Covenant breaking does not truly occur until some person sets himself up as an authority figure within the confines of the Faith. We also briefly touched on the reasons that Abdu’l-Baha virtually forbade the Baha’is from having any contact with covenant breakers (see The Will and Testament of Abdu’l-Baha for specifics). It was the Master’s judgement that, because covenant breaking involves a person’s ego, which we all have, it is a particularly dangerous phenomenon and the only sure treatment is quarantine. This is a hasty summary, but is more or less accurate.

We also journeyed into a brief discussion of covenant breaking in the West. For those among you with a morbid curiousity about such events, here is a historical summary. In 1960, Hand of the Cause of God, Charles Mason Remey decided (for reasons that have never been clear) that he was the second Guardian of the Baha’i Faith. Nevermind that his assumption of that station violated the Will and Testament of Abdu’l-Baha, and nevermind the fact that Remey signed a document stating that Shoghi Effendi didn’t have an heir — somehow by some grandeloquent leap of logic, he was The Man. For which pronouncement, he got tossed out on his ear.

Then, in December 1961, Remey gave one of his followers, a man named Joel Maringella [Ed. correct name is Joel Marangella and is substituted hereafter] (I’m not sure of the spelling here), a sealed envelope, instructing Marangella, to open if when the time was right. In, September, 1964, Remey, now in his 90s, appointed Marangella to head the Second International Baha’i Council (Shoghi Effendi appointed Remey to head the first council, the forerunner of the Universal House of Justice), and Remey, in effect handed over the reins of the, ahem, Orthodox Baha’i Faith, as he called it, to Marangella.

Shortly thereafter, Marangella went to Switzerland where he had placed the sealed envelope in a safe deposit box and opened the document. In it, Mason Remey, appointed Marangella as the third Guardian. Marangella decided to sit on this bit of news until after Remey’s death. But (ah the plot sickens, er, thickens) in May, 1967. Remey made a public appointment of one Donald Harvey as the third Guardian. Hey, wait a minute, howled Marangella, his feelings understandably hurt, [Ed. illegible word, probably:] but what about me? He sent Remey a photostatic copy of his appointment letter, but the old boy had no recollection of having done it. Whereupon, Marangella decided Remey had gone potty sometime back and was not in fact the Guardian anymore and had not been since the day in that bank vault when, trembling with excitement, he (Marangella) had opened the succession envelope to find his own name in its innards. Just where this left poor ol’ Don Harvey is not apparent. But Marangella proclaimed his own Guardianship and evidently won most of the covenant breakers to his cause, leaving Harvey with an empty title and three little old ladies who thought he had cute dimples. There’s more. In November 1969, [Ed. empty or illegible space which is probably:] Joel Marangella claimed to [Ed. crossed out word 'the' and replaced by handwritten word, probably] be the third Guardian. Here comes the cute part. In January, 1973, some man named Rex King decided he was the Regent of the Cause of Baha’u’llah (catchy title, that one) and that Marangella was not the Guardian. And so it has gone.

The point is evident. Without a covenant, there is no central point of unity. Without that, there is nothing to hold the covenant breakers together, so they fall apart. If it weren’t such a grave matter, it might be fun to watch happen.

[Ed. the newsletter summarizing the classes ends here and what follows is a letter from Denis MacEoin]
[Ed. whited out block of text on right hand upper corner with the date written in later as '21 De. 1976]


Thank you very much for your two letters dated November 21 and December 5 [Ed. date could be either 5 or 6] respectively. The details which you have sent me concerning your Baha’i classes in Los Angeles are among the most exciting I have for some time and I wish to assure all of those involved in that venture of my whole-hearted support and enthusiasm for it. I was particularly impressed by the four principles on which you have decided to base the functioning of your classes. The second of those guidelines – that it should be improper for anyone to question the belief of another participant in Baha’u’llah and so on – seems to me, to be the most significant. I assume that one or more of those concerned in drawing up these guidelines have experienced some form of attack, of this score, and I can only say that by no means are they alone and that you all have, in this respect, my sympathy and that of many other believers in this country [Ed. England] . It is, I feel, imperative for the sure development of serious Baha’i studies in the future that such an attitude prevail; it can be much to easy for someone to defeat an argument with which he personally does not agree (regardless of whether he be in the right or not) by using against the proponents of that argument the ultimate sanction that ‘it is in conflict with the teachings of the Faith’. It is not necessary for such a person to demonstrate the validity of his argument, it is enough that he hold some position of eminence in the Faith, or that he be regarded as an experienced and therefore (!) knowledgeable Baha’i, or that he be sufficiently forceful in putting forward such an objection. Provided it is accepted by the participants in a seminar, your guidelines should effectively preclude the use of such tactics and open the field for wide-ranging and meaningful discussion. But I fear that the intellectuals and rationalists within the Faith will have to endure much misunderstanding and even attack before before the harmonization of reason with faith can take place in the Baha’i community. Every effort that takes us nearer to that goal is to be commended.

[Ed. illegible or uncopied word(s)] is you say, similar seminars were begun several years ago in Britain. These were initiated by Moojan Momen, Peter Smith, and myself about 1970 and have taken place very intermittently since then. Our basic problem is that there is no one place in these islands where a fair-sized group of Baha’is interested in a more academic approach to the study of the Faith exists. In order to gather together a group almost the size of yours, we have to invite people from every part of Britain, and even then can not be sure of much of an attendance. Our most ambitious project is due take place next April when a seminar on Baha’i Studies will be held under the auspices of the Department of Sociology in the University of Lancaster. We hope that the four people currently engaged in research on Baha’i topics in Britain will read papers (these will be: Peter Smith, University of Lancaster, Sociology of the Baha’i Faith; Abbas Amanat, Oxford, Early Babi History; Viva Perdu, London, Theological Comparison of Christ and Baha’u’llah; and myself, Background of Babi/Bahai Religions). In addition, we shall be inviting one or two other competent Baha’is (such as Moojan Momen) to participate, as well as some non-Baha’i academics working in related fields. I have sent both Peter Smith and Moojan Momen [Ed. illegible text typed over text] copies of your report on your initial class; I hope in return to be able to send a write-up of the proceedings of the Lancaster seminar.

I enclose a reply to your comments on my article on “The Concept of Nation in Islam”; I hope I sound too harsh in my come-back, but I felt it was best to be as open as possible in my reaction to your remarks, which were, nonetheless, appreciated [Ed. MacEoin's reply is here] I speculate that one of the causes of misunderstanding over this article may have been the fact, referred to by you in your first report, that there exists withing your group two ‘camps’ – those who wish for a more intellectual oriented and academically disciplined approach and those whose interest lay primarily in discussion of personal questions and problems within the Faith, as related to personal life. I can well appreciate the dilemma; it occurs at every Summer School and will, I feel, continue to dog Baha’i studies for a long time. While one would hesitate to suggest any actual division among the friends, I feel that there is a definite need to distinguish more radically between varying interests, capacities, experience levels and approaches, otherwise one is invariably seeking to compromise and constantly falling between at least two stools. The underlying unity must be expressed in other ways – as it will undoubtedly be in the future Baha’i society. I feel that one of the most serious mistakes we make at this stage in the development of the Faith is to try to make all Baha’is conform to the same standards, even in literature, music, art and suchlike, in the false belief that uniformity can somehow bring unity. To some people it seems divisive that one Baha’i should be a college professor and another a caretaker in that college, and we end up trying – as I was once instructed to do by a Counsellor – to “talk to the lowest common denominator”. The keynote of the Faith is diversity, not only in race and religious background, but in talent, in intellect, in forms of creativity, in interests, in tastes, even in spiritual development. Perhaps you could find a way to hold some classes to cater for experienced and deep[ened] Baha’is in general terms, while creating other classes, specifically for intensive study of the academic aspects of the Faith, the spiritual aspects, the social, ‘everyday’ aspects. The results are much more likely to be valid at every level, while general conclusions could be shared for everyone’s benefit at the general classes.

On a personal note – I look forward to meeting you next year when you come to England – perhaps you could let me know when you expect to arrive and where you will be working. Please give my fondest regards to Paul Slaughter, if and when you see him – tell him to press ahead with the outlines of the exhibition and that I shall be in touch. In the meantime, do please keep me informed of developments at your classes; I look forward to hearing from you before long.
With best wishes,[Ed. signature: Denis MacEoin]
Denis MacEoin


The original scanned documents can be found here.