Centenary of the Baha’i Faith in Australia
The Baha’i Faith has been part of the fabric of Australian society for the past century.
The history of the Baha’i Faith in Australia began in 1920 with the arrival in Sydney of John Henry Hyde Dunn and Clara Dunn. Mr Dunn (1855-1941) was an Englishman and Mrs Dunn (1869-1960) was raised in Canada by Irish parents. Both had become Baha’is in the United States in the early twentieth century.
Mr and Mrs Dunn arrived in an Australia still reeling from the Great War, Australia’s costliest conflict in terms of deaths and casualties. The Baha’i message of universal peace and the oneness of humanity found a ready audience among those searching for alternatives that could prevent such a catastrophic conflict from occurring again.
The first Australians to become Baha’is were Oswald Whitaker, a Sydney optometrist, and Euphemia (Effie) Baker, a pioneering Australian woman photographer. Women were to play a leading role in the establishment and leadership of the Australian Baha’i community.
Gradually small Baha’i groups formed in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. In 1934, Australian Baha’is combined with their counterparts in New Zealand to elect their first national governing body, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Australia and New Zealand (photograph above). Separate National Assemblies for Australia and New Zealand were formed in 1957.
Among the outstanding early Australian Baha’is was Harold Collis Featherstone (1913-1990), an Adelaide engineer who served as a member of the National Spiritual Assembly from 1949 to 1962. In recognition of his qualities he was appointed a “Hand of the Cause of God,” an honour given to only a few Baha’is worldwide whose responsibility it was to protect and propagate the Faith.
The Baha’i community gradually grew larger and more diverse as Australia expanded its post-war immigration program. Aboriginal people joined the community, among the first being Uncle Fred Murray in South Australia.
Extensive media coverage of the opening of the Baha’i Temple on a bush-clad property overlooking Sydney’s northern beaches in 1961 brought the Baha’i Faith to the attention of the public. The national headquarters of the Baha’i community is located in its grounds.
In a society where sectarian divisions remained deep, the inauguration of a place of worship where services drew on the scriptures of all the world’s religions was a radical departure. This attracted interest among people looking for religion to play a unifying role in society.
In the 1960s and 1970s the community absorbed new Baha’is inspired by the counter-culture to embrace a new religion with a focus on peace and the oneness of humanity.
The size and diverse composition of the community was further boosted in the 1980s when Australia opened its doors to Baha’is fleeing the resurgence of persecution of their faith in Iran. Their subsequent settlement, integration and contribution to Australian life has been a major success story.
In the 1990s, Baha’i centres were opened in Canberra, Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Hobart and in some regional centres. Baha’i classes in State schools became popular with parents and children of families of a variety of backgrounds as well as with Baha’is.
Today increased resources have enabled the Baha’i community to enter into cooperation with organisations, groups and individuals working in neighbourhoods and at the national level towards aims that Baha’is share, such as equality, peace, human rights for all, and greater inter-faith understanding.
The Australian Baha’i Community is celebrating its centenary in 2020, and continuing to play a constructive role in Australian society.