100 Years of the Baha’i Faith in Australia – some personal reflections

What a year to have a centenary! The Baha’i Faith in Australia is celebrating the development of the Faith in the 100 years since it was first established here in 1920. Those of you who have been following my blog for a while will know that I am a Baha’i. I have been volunteering this year to help with the celebrations and reflections on this centenary. Like many other organisations, ‘flexibility’ and ‘creativity’ have been our key words this year as we have abandoned our plans, then resurrected some in a highly modified form as well as thinking of new ways to mark this centenary.

How the Baha’i Faith Started in Australia

Clara and Hyde Dunn standing in a park in Melbourne.
Clara and Hyde Dunn in Melbourne. Hyde Dunn was always immaculately dressed and invariably wore a bow tie. I like this photo as I think it also shows something about the personality of Clara Dunn.

If you have a look at the Australian Baha’i Centenary website, you can see how the Baha’i Faith started through the efforts of Clara and Hyde Dunn. They were not young nor were they well-off when they arrived in Australia from California on 10th April 1920, yet they had high hopes.

Clara and Hyde Dunn wanted to share the teachings of a then little-known religion that stated among other things that:

  • people of all cultural and ethnic backgrounds are like one family in all its diversity and can live in harmony;
  • women had the same standing before God as men; and
  • that people should independently investigate the truth for themselves.

These were radical ideas for the 1920s, a time when the White Australia Policy was well in place, there were appalling policies and attitudes towards Australia’s indigenous peoples and when women were marginalised in many aspects of life. It was an era when there was increased questioning of the major churches and exploration of alternative spiritual paths, but most people were still expected to follow the beliefs of their parents and stay in the religious tradition they were born in. Sectarianism prevailed, leading many people to have hostile attitudes to different religious beliefs.

Clara Dunn was 51 and her husband, Hyde, was 64 when they landed in Sydney. They had no organisation in Australia to support them. Things were financially tough in the first year and Hyde Dunn struggled with illness. Then things started thttps://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/soul-search/100-years-of-bahai-in-australia-buddhist-mindfulness-for-couples/12742696o improve when Hyde Dunn found a job as a travelling salesman. This job enabled Hyde and Clara Dunn to move from place to place around Australia. Gradually they made friends and Hyde Dunn delivered many talks about the teachings of the Baha’i Faith in those early years. In 1922, an optometrist, Oswald Whitaker, became the first Australian Baha’i. An artist and photographer from Ballarat, Effie Baker, became the second Baha’i soon after. From these humble beginnings the Baha’i Faith has grown and Baha’is now live in around 400 local government areas in Australia.

My Work for the Australian Baha’i Centenary

I have really enjoyed being part of a team working on this project. We have been fortunate to be able to draw on the extensive work of historian, Graham Hassall for this centenary. Graham is a Research Associate in the School of Government at the Victoria University of Wellington. Since he was awarded a PhD in Pacific History from the Australian National University he has also done a lot of research into the history of the Baha’i Faith in Australia and the Pacific on top of a busy academic career. Recently he did a presentation about Clara and Hyde Dunn which can be viewed on YouTube.

A few days ago I was interviewed about the Australian Baha’i Centenary by Meredith Lake for Radio National’s Soul Search program. The program begins with a ten-minute interview of another Baha’i, Mike Day, who explains the religious turmoil in Iran during the middle of the nineteenth century from which the Baha’i Faith emerged. His interview is well worth listening to. I gave a brief overview of the history of the Faith in Australia, and if you listen to the end you can hear about how my boyfriend at university responded when I told him I was not interested in hearing about his religion. As you will hear, he respected my wishes, and now he’s my husband.

During the year I have developed the Australian Baha’i website, given an online presentation about using the new version of Trove and helped others with developing associated material for the Centenary. A centenary is generally a time where there are special events and big projects. Due to the lockdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, we had to cancel, then resurrect but severely modify events to launch the Centenary. Events such as the special service at the Baha’i Temple in Sydney were quickly organised by a small number of people and live-streamed. Even if you are not interested in religion, you should watch the special service to hear the glorious singing.

Inside the Baha’i Temple in Sydney. The Temple was opened in 1961. Read my post about the history of the Temple written a few years ago for its 50th anniversary.

Some Personal Reflections on this Centenary

I have been reflecting on the centenary as I have been working on it. The story of Clara and Hyde Dunn demonstrates that we don’t have to be young or wealthy or famous to do extraordinary things. What they did required a lot of courage. They persisted in working on their goal even though they faced many barriers and it was hard going at the beginning. Their beliefs were not shaken by their difficulties.

The National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Australia and New Zealand was first elected in 1934. Read more about this on the Australian Baha’i Centenary website.

One photo that I think speaks a lot about the early Baha’is in the Antipodes, is the above photo of the Baha’i governing body of Australia and New Zealand when it was first elected in 1934. In order to see why I think this is an extraordinary photo, it is important to understand that the Baha’i Faith has no clergy to lead the believers or to provide pastoral care. This work is done by governing bodies called ‘Spiritual Assemblies’ which have 9 members. The members of the Local and National Spiritual Assemblies are elected by Baha’is each year. No electioneering is allowed and each adult aged 21 and over lodges their vote confidentially. The election process is part of the fundamental teachings of the Baha’i Faith. Baha’is regard it as a spiritual process.

The election of the National Spiritual Assembly in 1934 occurred in an era when none of the major religious organisations had female clergy yet the Baha’is in Australia and New Zealand voted for a majority of women on their governing body. It is one thing to have a lofty teaching in a religion, but quite another for believers to put it into practice, especially believers who come from a society where women were rarely in leadership positions.

Being a Baha’i is to constantly reflect on what you do and how you do it, in order to strive a bit each day to put the teachings of the Baha’i Faith into practice. It is challenging to do this because we are ordinary people as capable as anyone of stumbling in life. I think it would have been even more challenging to these early believers to follow such a new religion with teachings that were so different to the views of most people at the time.

The early Baha’is did sometimes stumble. Some joined but did not really grasp that the Baha’i Faith was an independent religion with its own religious practices, laws and principles. Some mixed the teachings of the Baha’i Faith with other beliefs they had. You had to be quite independently minded to shake off the prevailing attitudes of society and become a Baha’i, but some independently minded people were against organised religion generally so found the development of the Local and National Spiritual Assemblies challenging and so withdrew from the Baha’i community.

Quietly and with determination, thousands of Australians have helped to develop the Baha’i Faith in this country over the last one hundred years. It is the work that they did that enables Baha’is to make a positive contribution to Australian society today.

Further Reading

If you would like to explore the history of the Faith, you can refer to the following:

I will continue to add to this list as I come across more helpful sources.

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