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Post Louis Gregory and the South Carolina Baha'is
Created by John Eipper on 06/18/19 4:28 AM

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Louis Gregory and the South Carolina Baha'is (Vincent Littrell, USA, 06/18/19 4:28 am)

In July 2014 I posted on WAIS a 2010 US religious census that showed the Baha'i Faith was the largest non-Christian religion in South Carolina.  See: http://waisworld.org/go.jsp?id=02a&objectType=post&o=87041&objectTypeId=74480&topicId=152

Within the last year I found out that a history of that fact was published in 2015 by Louis Venters, University of South Carolina Associate Professor of History and a member of the Baha'i Faith. His book is titled No Jim Crow Church: The Origins of South Carolina's Baha'i Community. This is the first volume of a two-volume series on South Carolina's Baha'is, the second book being A History of the Bahá'í Faith in South Carolina, published in February of this year. These books are interesting to me for a number of reasons, beyond my being a Baha'i myself. From a Baha'i perspective, No Jim Crow Church and its new companion further show the Baha'is' continued emergence from obscurity on the global stage. No Jim Crow Church is the first book on religion specifically about the history of the Baha'i that isn't categorized by Western academia as belonging in a sub-category of Middle East studies. Most scholarship on the history of the Baha'i Faith is placed in a sub-section of the Middle East Studies because of that religion's 19th-century origins in Persia and follow-on early development in Turkey and Palestine. Professor Venters's book is the first history of the Baha'i Faith that is acknowledged in US peer-reviewed academic history journals for its contribution to the literature of the history of religion in the United States.*

I also find No Jim Crow Church interesting, because before delving into the introduction to and growth of the Baha'i Faith in South Carolina, Professor Venters starts off with a chapter discussing the history of the Baha'is of Washington DC (near where I currently live). This happened through the efforts of a South Carolina native of African descent and 1896 Fisk University graduate, Louis Gregory, a civil servant of the US government who became a Baha'i in 1909, in part because of his attraction to that religion's spiritual approach to combating racial oppression. Gregory played a significant part in the development and establishment of the early Washington Baha'i community before his teaching efforts gravitated towards the South and his home state. As a life-long American Baha'i, I have long known the name of Louis Gregory and have been familiar to a limited degree with his being a key player in the history of the American Baha'i community overall and with American Baha'is of African descent in particular. But I didn't know the fascinating details of his introduction of the Baha'i Faith to South Carolina. Most of my personal studies of the history of the Baha'i Faith have centered on its development in the Middle East and its relationship to Islam. My knowledge of the development of the Baha'i community in the United States is limited but growing, and these books certainly do help.

Professor Venters writes:

"It soon became clear that the warm interracial fellowship I saw in every Baha'i gathering during the 1990s had not emerged suddenly, as a natural result of the civil rights movement. Rather, the foundations had been laid during the long decades of Jim Crow, as tiny groups of Baha'is in South Carolina had struggled, often at their own peril, to build an interracial faith community within a racially segregated and religiously orthodox society. I realized I needed to start at the beginning, not with the thousands who became Baha'is in South Carolina during the 1970s but with the initial two hundred who were their spiritual forbears." (No Jim Crow Church, p. xii)

Venters further states:

"I argue that from its arrival in South Carolina early in the Jim Crow era, the Baha'i Faith represented a significant, sustained, spiritually based, and deceptively subtle challenge to the ideology and structures of white male supremacy and to the Protestant orthodoxy with which they were inextricably linked. Although numerically insignificant and apparently powerless during the period under review, South Carolina's Baha'i community accomplished a remarkable feat that was without real parallel: in the midst of a political and religious culture that denied the humanity of people of African descent in virtually every department of life, they created an interracial fellowship in which blacks and whites participated fully, unitedly, and as complete equals from the local level up." (Ibid., p. xiii)

Venters goes on to discuss the fact of biracial histories (or "biracialism") of some of South Carolina's Protestant churches going back to the colonial period. Venters describes biracialism in this context as "comprising both black and white members but maintaining various forms of segregation and discrimination at the level of the congregation, the denomination, or both." (p. xiii) However, the fact of biracial activities isn't the same as "interracialism," which is described as "maintaining a commitment to racial equality, both ideologically and structurally." (p. xiii) Venters points out that few religious communities in South Carolina during the Jim Crow era--to include the Protestant majority of that region as well as Catholics and Jews--transcended Jim Crow segregation of and discriminatory behavior towards peoples of African descent. (p. xiii) The Baha'is were the first religious community to teach interracialism in the Jim Crow South. Now we see the fruits of that effort with the large Baha'i community that is acknowledged to be the largest non-Christian religion in the state of South Carolina.

From the perspective of Baha'i history to be sure and arguably for the history of religion in the United States overall, Professor Venters's works are important contributions. I find it most fascinating that the beautiful spiritualized religion of Baha'u'llah of Persia--who exhorts humanity to recognize and understand the reality of the oneness of mankind and to act collectively in accordance with that reality--grew new roots and developed strength for its future flourishing in Jim Crow, racially segregated, South Carolina.

*Such as The American Historical Review, Volume 121, Issue 4, October 2016, pp. 1301-1302.

JE comments:  So good to hear from our dear friend Vincent Littrell, who's been way too silent of late.  Deeply traditional South Carolina is a surprising place for a progressive religion like Baha'i to flourish, but SC also has a long history of going against the flow. (Vince--do you accept my description of Baha'i as "progressive"?  I'm thinking primarily in terms of racial tolerance and the "oneness" concept you describe so eloquently.)

One finds large Baha'i communities everywhere, and not where you'd expect:  Bolivia and Belize are two other examples.


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  • Baha'i: A "Progressive" Religion? (Vincent Littrell, USA 06/28/19 6:20 AM)

    On 18 June John Eipper asked me, "Vince--do you accept my description of Baha'i as 'progressive'? I'm thinking primarily in terms of racial tolerance and the 'oneness' concept."


    My short answer is "yes." However, as John seems to indirectly acknowledge in his question; the word "progressive" presently in the United States is seen as an essentially secular political movement to which the Baha'i Faith does not formally link itself. Nor do individual Baha'is identify publicly with it or any other political movement or faction.


    I've written in WAIS before about Baha'is not participating in factional politics (see: http://waisworld.org/go.jsp?id=02a&o=86938 ) Also, the Baha'i teachings go beyond the notion of racial tolerance as John mentions in his question. Baha'is instead advocate "racial unity." The term "interracialism" was described in my last post on South Carolina's Baha'is as "maintaining a commitment to racial equality, both ideologically and structurally." (See Venters, No Jim Crow Church, p.xiii) Baha'is are taught to uphold the unity of all human races, to advance the idea of "unity in diversity" as a facet of the overarching principle of the oneness of mankind.



    With the above being said, in terms of its teachings in relation to the development of humanity on the whole and in terms of the history of religion and past religious dispensations, the Baha'i Faith is progressive. A key doctrine of Baha'i is that of "progressive revelation." This doctrine holds that throughout the ages of mankind's existence, God never has left nor will leave humanity bereft of His Word. That throughout the millennia and epochs of human history, luminous beings appear as Prophets, Messengers and Manifestations of God to educate mankind through continuously progressing and unfolding cycles of divine revelations--each unleashing into existence a new infusion of the Creative Word of God for humanity to continue an all-embracing progression from the civilizational (and all that the concept of civilization in its highest form encompasses) down to the development of the individual human soul for its transition from the physical body after death. From the Baha'i perspective, Muhammad sealed (or ended) a cycle of revelation titled "the Adamic cycle" that began with Adam. And now, with the advent of the twin 19th-century revelations of the Persian Manifestations of God, the Bab (the "Gate"; Mirza Ali Muhammad of Shiraz) and Baha'u'llah ("The Glory of God"; Mirza Husayn Ali of Mazandaran Province), the Baha'i cycle of revelation has begun. Future Manifestations of God for the next five hundred thousand years will reveal God's progressive Word under the aegis of the Baha'i cycle of revelation.



    In the above paragraph I have deliberately capitalized the words "His," "Word," "Prophet" and others out of respect when referencing words directly connected to God in the narrative. Also, here the capitalization of the concept "Creative Word of God" implies a reality in Baha'i thought beyond merely the idea of script or writing. In Baha'i thought, the "Creative Word of God" brought by the Prophets, Messengers, and Manifestations of God directly causes the progression of the human condition from its past in epochal terms not only because of the revealed holy scriptures are for mankind's direct learning and intellectual absorption, but that revelation itself directly infuses human beings with new capacities for understanding reality and determining truths that humans from past epochs couldn't or weren't allowed to grasp. From the Baha'i perspective, the twin revelations of The Bab and Baha'u'llah signal the coming of age and maturation of the human race. Although past revelations like those of Jesus and Muhammad in the Gospel and Qur'an point to mankind's oneness, they don't explicitly set it forth as a principle as Baha'u'llah does. This was, in Baha'i thought, because mankind wasn't ready for such a clearly and directly stated concept at that time. The Baha'i revelation is a progression from past revelations, in that not only does it set forth in clear terms the principle of the oneness of mankind, but further exhorts world political unity and provides an unprecedented level of creative energies for the human race to take the steps needed for higher orders of civilizational, social, spiritual and material existence. Whether this is in accordance with the Will of God or not is left up to human beings, for human free will does very much exist. Divine revelation provides the tools and impetus and creative energy, but human beings have to use their will to act on it.


    Faith obviously is critical here too, though if people don't believe, the power of revelation still impacts them in positive ways though they don't know it. It is my understanding that because of the Creative Word of God, even those who currently think in progressive terms from a secular base are unwittingly impacted and advanced along by the power of the latest twin revelations from God. It is my understanding that the tremendous advances in human civilization--the sciences, arts, literature, learning, expansion, integrations, etc.--and the concurrent overthrow of so many sacred traditions and institutions across the globe in the last few hundred years and especially after Baha'u'llah's advent, are a result of this new infusion of God's Creative Word. But the Baha'i view is also that human understanding of the scriptures of the new revelations are needed as well to show humanity the way to discipline themselves and align their new found capacities with the Will of God for civilizational advancement to achieve its full measure. This is prophesized in the Baha'i writings as a future "golden age" of mankind.



    Regarding the sovereigns of the world and world unity, Baha'u'llah states: "It is Our hope that they will arise to achieve what will be conducive to the well-being of man. It is their duty to convene an all-inclusive assembly, which either they themselves or their ministers will attend, and to enforce whatever measures are required to establish unity and concord amongst men. They must put away the weapons of war, and turn to the instruments of universal reconstruction. Should one king rise up against another, all the other kings must arise to deter him. Arms and armaments will, then, be no more needed beyond that which is necessary to insure the internal security of their respective countries. If they attain unto this all-surpassing blessing, the people of each nation will pursue, with tranquillity and contentment, their own occupations, and the groanings and lamentations of most men would be silenced." (Baha'u'llah, Epistle To the Son of the Wolf, Online version at https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/bahaullah/epistle-son-wolf/2#584463448 ).



    I'll conclude with this following quote from the 1980 book Baha'u'llah: The King of Glory by Baha'i historian H.M. Balyuzi. I think it provides a poetic and deeply felt insight into the epochal workings of progressive revelation:



    "The Manifestation of God has always appeared amongst the most depraved, the most demoralized people of His age, in the most benighted, downtrodden land. Moses came to a people who had become enslaved, had lost their self respect and fallen prey to their idle fancies. He challenged both the might of the tyrant and the waywardness of His own people, and both did He vanquish. Jesus stepped out of the lowest ranks of the same people, the children of Israel, who had once again forfeited their birthright, fallen into serfdom, and forgotten the warnings and counsels of their Prophets. He suffered grievously both at their hands and the hands of their brutal oppressors. But triumph was His in the final count. Muhammad, the Arabian Prophet, rose up amongst the idolaters, uncouth and unbridled, who buried their daughters alive, who were lawless and predatory. He made of a people, disparate and forlorn, a single and single-minded nation, gave it law, vision and understanding, and taught it to worship the One True God. And in the nineteenth century, in the ancient land of Iran, amongst a people wallowing in the depths of ignominy, there arose two Manifestations of God: One of pure lineage, a descendant of the Arabian Prophet, the Other a scion of the royal house of Iran that ruled the empire before the advent of Islam. They had the power to recreate lives, to confer on men the gift of second birth. Their call was directed not only to the inhabitants of Iran, but to the entire concourse of mankind." (Balyuzi, Baha'u'llah, pp. 4-5)


    JE comments:  I've always learned enormous amounts from Vincent Littrell's thorough and patient explanations of Baha'i.  Two follow-up questions:  why do Baha'is eschew direct political involvement?  I understand that they are "above" the mundane nastiness of politics, but you have to get your hands dirty to bring about any sort of change.  Think of the US Civil Rights movement, which didn't happen just because it had enlightenment, goodness (or what have you) on its side.


    Second question:  do the Baha'i leaders have a process by which they can acknowledge future revelations from God?   Especially, what about a new Prophet who might come from outside the Baha'i tradition?


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    • Why do Baha'is Avoid Political Involvement? (Vincent Littrell, USA 07/22/19 7:32 AM)
      On 28 June John Eipper asked: "Why do Baha'is eschew direct political involvement? I understand that they are 'above' the mundane nastiness of politics, but you have to get your hands dirty to bring about any sort of change. Think of the US Civil Rights movement, which didn't happen just because it had enlightenment, goodness (or what have you) on its side."

      In researching the answer to John's question, I've discovered that my own understanding of the Baha'i requirement for non-involvement in factionalized politics has evolved over the years.



      First I'll address John's comment about the US Civil Rights movement and the need to "get hands dirty" to see it through. Though not directly involved in the politics of that movement in the US Deep South, throughout most of the 20th century Baha'is did publicly teach interracial unity in direct contravention of the Jim Crow system in places where that kind of teaching was physically dangerous. Such efforts may be seen as in alignment with some goals of black political mobilization, without being linked directly to it in organizational or overarchingly ideological terms. Louis Venters eloquently shows this at some depth in his two recent books No Jim Crow Church: The Origins of South Carolina's Baha'i Community and A History of the Baha'i Faith in South Carolina, which I briefly discussed in a 18 June WAIS post titled Louis Gregory and the South Carolina Baha'is: http://waisworld.org/go.jsp?id=02a&o=124796 .


      And with regards to Baha'i teaching of interracial unity in the US Deep South, Venters points to incidents involving groups like the Ku Klux Klan and hostile whites confronting the Baha'is.



      Though not factionally political, Baha'i religious teaching throughout much of the 20th century is seen by Venters to have helped provide impetus, for more than just a few, towards black political mobilization for purposes of achieving social equality. This includes at the time of the Civil Rights act of 1964 and beyond. As an example, Venters discusses Louis Gregory's energetic efforts at teaching the Baha'i vision of interracial unity in 1916 where he spoke at churches, schools, and colleges to thousands of people. Venters comments on a result of Gregory's 1916 teaching tour into the Deep South:



      "One significant result of the trip was an invitation to return to Charleston, South Carolina, on January 1, 1917, to deliver the keynote address in the city's Emancipation Day celebration. Gregory's speech at Morris Street Baptist Church, part of a daylong program that included a 'grand parade' through the city, opened a year of increased activism and self-confidence among blacks across the state. A month after Gregory's speech, James Weldon Johnson, the new field secretary of the NAACP, visited South Carolina as part of his first effort to establish outposts of the organization in the South, and he found people who were ready to act." (Venters, p. 35).



      Another example is Venters' discussion of the Baha'i response to the "Red Summer" of 1919, where anti-black violence erupted in US cities, mostly outside the South. Venters writes:



      "In the wake of the Red Summer, Abdu'l-Baha directed the American Baha'is to bring the faith's teachings on interracial unity to the attention of leaders of thought and the general public. Beginning in early 1921 in Washington, where one of the worst riots of 1919 had taken place, the Baha'is hosted a series of high-profile conferences aimed at promoting personal contacts across racial lines and dispelling whites' prevailing misinformation about blacks and other racial minorities. Repeated from coast to coast during the rest of the 1920s and 1930s, the conferences and other smaller gatherings involved extensive collaboration with such organizations as the NAACP and the Urban League and a number of progressive intellectuals and religious leaders." (Venters, p. 36.)*



      As can be seen with the above, the Baha'is do publicly get involved in social issues. They are exhorted to do this by their leadership. An example of Baha'i involvement in global social development can be seen in a recent November 2018 letter to the Baha'i world community from the Universal House of Justice:



      "Thirty-five years ago, circumstances within and outside the [Baha'i] community combined to create new possibilities for greater involvement in the life of society. The Faith had developed to the stage at which the processes of social and economic development needed to be incorporated into its regular pursuits, and in October 1983 we called upon the Bahá'ís of the world to enter this new field of endeavor. The Office of Social and Economic Development was established at the Bahá'í World Centre to assist us in promoting and coordinating the activities of the friends worldwide. Bahá'í activities for social and economic development, at whatever level of complexity, were at that time counted in the hundreds. Today they number in the tens of thousands, including hundreds of sustained projects such as schools and scores of development organizations. The broad range of current activities spans efforts from villages and neighborhoods to regions and nations, addressing an array of challenges, including education from preschool to university, literacy, health, the environment, support for refugees, advancement of women, empowerment of junior youth, elimination of racial prejudice, agriculture, local economies, and village development...Beyond this, of course, countless believers, through their professional and voluntary efforts, contribute their energies and insights to projects and organizations established for the common good. (9 November 2018, Letter from The Universal House of Justice at: https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/the-universal-house-of-justice/messages/20181109_001/1#557119948 ).



      The above notwithstanding, Baha'is are forbidden to be involved in factional politics. The Universal House of Justice emphasizes this point to Baha'is in the lengthy but informative passage below:



      "In political controversies, they [Baha'is-VL] 'should assign no blame, take no side, further no design, and identify themselves with no system prejudicial to the best interests' of their 'world-wide Fellowship.' They are called to 'avoid the entanglements and bickerings inseparable from the pursuits of the politician.' And they are to 'rise above all particularism and partisanship, above the vain disputes, the petty calculations, the transient passions that agitate the face, and engage the attention, of a changing world.' It is not for a Bahá'í, in offering social commentary, to vilify specific individuals, organizations, or governments or to make attacks on them. Indeed, the Guardian specifically cautioned the friends against referring to political figures in their public remarks, whether in criticism or support."**



      Furthermore, Bahá'u'lláh and ‘Abdu'l-Bahá enjoined Bahá'ís to be obedient to the government of their land. Unity, order, and cooperation are the basis for sound and lasting change. Even civil disobedience, in the form of a conscious decision to violate the law to effect social change, is not acceptable for Bahá'ís--whatever merit it appears to have had in particular political settings.



      The principles of non-involvement in politics and obedience to government, far from being obstacles to social change, are aspects of an approach set forth in the Bahá'í writings to implement effective remedies for and address the root causes of the ills afflicting society. This approach includes active involvement in the life of society, as well as the possibility of influencing and contributing to the social policies of government by all lawful means. Indeed, service to others and to society is a hallmark of the Bahá'í life.



      There can be no question then that Bahá'ís are committed to efforts toward social transformation. Shoghi Effendi cautioned, "they [Baha'is] must also guard against the other extreme of never taking part, with other progressive groups, in conferences or committees designed to promote some activity in entire accord with our [Baha'i] teachings-such as, for instance, better race relations." (27 April 2017 Letter from The Universal House of Justice to an individual Baha'i at: https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/the-universal-house-of-justice/messages/20170427_001/1#362945323 )



      So, to come full circle back to John's question, Baha'is eschew factional politics because:



      "To enter into the quixotic tournament of demolishing one by one the evils in the world is, to a Bahá'í, a vain waste of time and effort. His whole life is directed towards proclaiming the Message of Bahá'u'lláh, reviving the spiritual life of his fellowmen, uniting them in a divinely created World Order, and then, as the Order grows in strength and influence, he will see the power of that Message transforming the whole human society and progressively solving the problems and removing the injustices which have so long bedeviled the world.


      "There are many well-meaning people who are striving to improve society by fighting its evils, which usually means contending against individuals, groups, or institutions who are seen as oppressive, unjust, or corrupt. Yet no matter how high-minded a particular cause might be, if it is advanced through contention and confrontation, it merely provokes and intensifies the flame of a countermovement initiated by others who act on what they consider to be their own high-minded beliefs. Real solutions remain elusive. The cycle of contention continues without end, with one group after the other seizing enough power to implement its views before becoming overcome by those in opposition." (19 November 1974 letter of the Universal House of Justice to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Italy at https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/the-universal-house-of-justice/messages/19741119_001/1#278403488 and a 10 August 2018 letter of the Universal House of Justice to an individual Baha'i at https://www.divinegemsvirtues.com/uploads/6/1/4/8/61489781/20180810_uhj_to_indiv_re_double_crusade__redacted_english_.pdf )



      I hope this helps answer John's question about Baha'is and politics.



      *Abdu'l-Baha was then residing in Haifa, Palestine. He was the son of and successor to the prophetic founder of the Baha'i Faith Baha'u'llah. Through the Will and Testament of Baha'u'llah was appointed the leader of the Baha'i religion. He served in that capacity from 1892-1921.


      **Shoghi Effendi is titled "the Guardian of the Baha'i Faith," and was the authoritative leader of the Baha'i Faith from 1921-1957 having been appointed in Abdu'l-Baha's Will and Testament as leader.


      JE comments:  You've answered my question to a T, Vince.  Avoid "entanglements and bickerings"--I would love a world like that.  The problem as I see it, is this:  those who entangle and bicker are the ones who get their way  (a corollary to the "squeaky wheel gets the grease" maxim).


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