Fifty years ago, landmark gatherings lifted Baha’i world
FRANKFURT, Germany — A historic Baha’i conference in Frankfurt last weekend brought to mind an earlier gathering in the same city a half century before – one that was also a milestone in Baha’i history.
Last weekend’s event in Frankfurt was one of the current series of 41 conferences around the globe marking the half-way point of a five-year effort involving establishment of community-building activities in tens of thousands of neighborhoods and villages. So far some 75,000 people have participated in the gatherings.
By comparison, the five Intercontinental Conferences of 1958 came half-way through a 10-year program to establish the Baha’i Faith in every country and major territory in the world. Total attendance 50 years ago was about 5,400 people.
The announcement of the 1958 gatherings – in addition to Frankfurt they were to be held in Kampala, Uganda; Sydney, Australia; Jakarta, Indonesia; and Chicago in the United States – was one of the final acts of Shoghi Effendi, head of the Baha’i Faith from 1921 until his passing in November 1957.
Although he died unexpectedly two months before the conferences began, Shoghi Effendi himself planned many of the details, including naming his personal representative to each of the gatherings and announcing the special gifts he would send, among which were provisions for a photograph of Baha’u’llah to be viewed by all of those in attendance.
Like the current conferences, the earlier gatherings had as two of their objectives the celebrating of achievements in Baha’i work as well as deliberating on how to continue to meet goals.
In addition, three of the 1958 host cities were sites of soon-to-be-built Baha’i temples, and Shoghi Effendi – the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith – had announced that he would send precious and historic items for the foundation-laying ceremonies.
The difference of a half century
The plan of growth that covered the period of 1953-1963 concentrated on diffusion, and it carried the Baha’i Faith throughout the world. More than 100 countries and territories were opened in the first year and by the end of the decade the Faith had been brought to most nations. The number of national governing bodies grew from 12 to 56, and communities were established in more than 11,000 individual localities.
Recent plans concern the multiplication and enrichment of activities at the local level. The number of localities today is nearly 10 times that of 1963, and current efforts are focused on establishing study circles, devotional gatherings, and activities for children and young teens not only for Baha’is but for the wider community in all of these areas.
Many similarities, however, exist between the conferences then and now. Representatives of the head of the Baha’i Faith – Shoghi Effendi in the 1950s, the Universal House of Justice now – addressed every gathering.
Specific planning for future work was a key element on each agenda – attendees in 1958 viewed Shoghi Effendi’s maps depicting progress at the midpoint of the 10-year plan, and current attendees are consulting on programs of growth in key areas.
The sheer size of the conferences was notable both times. The Frankfurt gathering of 1958 drew 2,300 people, more than most of the current conferences but exactly half the number of participants in last weekend’s event in the same city.
And the Sydney conference two weeks ago attracted 5,400 people – equal to the total for all the gatherings in 1958 and nearly 20 times the 300 participants that convened in Sydney 50 years ago.
In 1958, the five conferences were scheduled with one every two months, beginning in January and winding up in September. The current series of 41 gatherings began on 1 November, with up to four conferences held every weekend for 18 consecutive weeks.
Highlights from 1958
An unexpected feature of the conferences in 1958 was the opportunity it afforded the Baha’is to come to terms with the sudden loss of Shoghi Effendi.
One writer called the Kampala conference “a magnet to the sorrowing Baha’i world.”
Shoghi Effendi’s widow, Ruhiyyih Khanum, was his designated representative to that gathering.
“Poignant indeed was her presence,” wrote a chronicler at the time. “The heart, the light, the life” of all the sessions, said another.
Ruhiyyih Khanum herself offered a tribute to Shoghi Effendi at the conference, and told the gathering, “I hope that each one of you will go back from this conference … just like a blazing fire … and create a worthy memorial to our beloved Guardian.”
Other noteworthy facts from the 1958 conferences:
– More than half the 2,300 people who attended the earlier Frankfurt gathering traveled from Iran for the event. At this month’s event in that city, a gift of red roses onstage represented the Baha’is of Iran.
– Just as people were gathering in Jakarta for the conference in Indonesia, government permission to hold the gathering was rescinded. Two planes were chartered, and all the people who could travel went to Singapore, then part of Malaya, where arrangements were hastily made for a gathering. Official accounts of the conference list it as taking place in both Jakarta and Singapore.
– Eleven Baha’is with the rank of Hand of the Cause of God, one of whom was Shoghi Effendi’s personal representative, attended the Frankfurt conference of 1958.
– Three of the five venues in 1958 were also sites of conferences in the current series – Frankfurt, Sydney, and Chicago.
– Four of the earlier venues are sites of Baha’i houses of worship. The temple near Chicago had been completed in 1953. Foundation-laying ceremonies were held during the conferences in Kampala and Sydney, and those temples opened in 1961. The house of worship near Frankfurt opened in 1964.
At least nine people – and possibly more – at last weekend’s gathering in Frankfurt were also at the conference in 1958.
Uta von Both of Germany spoke of the earlier event in a presentation this past weekend. The 2,300 participants in 1958 represented 57 countries, she told the audience. She said one of the themes had been the need for Baha’is to move to new areas, and 133 people committed themselves to such a move.
Ian Semple of Switzerland recalled how the representative of Shoghi Effendi, Amelia Collins, stood by the photograph of Baha’u’llah as people approached to view it, distributing rose water to each person.
Ursula Grossmann, originally from Germany and now living in Finland, said the flavor of the two gatherings was different.
“The conference in 1958 was much smaller than the one today, and the countries from the east weren’t allowed to join,” she said. “Today that is possible – we have representatives from Macedonia, Kosovo, Hungary, Poland, and others present, and that gives a whole new atmosphere.”
Foad Kazemzadeh of Germany, who attended the 1958 conference as a youth, remembered it thus:
“The Baha’is had lost their dearly loved Guardian only a few months before. How eagerly they listened at the conference to the tribute which Hand of the Cause Amelia Collins paid to their beloved Shoghi Effendi in her personal recollections.
“Especially for the many, many believers who had come from Iran, her words were a solace to their wounded hearts. It is such a shame that due to the suppression of the Baha’is in Iran, no one could come this time. The bouquets of red roses that you see on the different stages are a sign that their empty places are sorely felt.”