In 1957, Shoghi Effendi suddenly passed away of the Asiatic flu, while on a visit to London. With his passing, there was at that moment no leadership of the Baha’i Faith that was firmly grounded on Bahá’u’lláh’s own writings.
If there was a moment when human ego would take hold in the Baha’i Faith, this was it. With no will left by Shoghi Effendi, nothing was certain. All that was known was that in the months shortly before his death, Shoghi Effendi had completed the appointment of 27 “Hands of the Cause”, high ranking officers of the Baha’i Faith, whom Shoghi Effendi described in his writings as the “Chief Stewards” of the Baha’i Faith.
What these men and women did, at that moment, determined the future. They all gathered in Haifa, except for Corinne True, who at the age of 96, was unable to make the journey. They searched Shoghi Effendi’s sealed office for a will, but found none. Some of them had been appointed six years before, but others had only been appointed by Shoghi Effendi a few weeks before. The situation they found themselves in is conveyed by Ruhiyyih Khanum, herself a Hand of the Cause, and the recently bereaved widow of Shoghi Effendi:
Not only were we dazed and grieving, we were orphans, deprived of our father. The responsibility for the entire Cause of God, to which each one of us was wholly consecrated, had been placed in our hands, with neither premonition, warning nor advice. Aside from the thought that we were now the only ones to direct the Bahá’ís of the world, to protect and guide them and to win the Crusade of our beloved Guardian, we were faced with problems of inconceivable magnitude. How to assume the reins of authority, with no document to support us, other than the general theological statements about the Hands? What should we do regarding money, urgently needed for the monthly upkeep of the Shrines, Holy Places, pilgrim houses, and gardens, and to pay not only these substantial recurring bills but continue to finance innumerable vital Bahá’í undertakings throughout the world which Shoghi Effendi himself had inaugurated and supported from his funds as Head of the Faith? What was our legal status, on which hinged the delicate question that all the international financial assets of the Faith were in the name of Shoghi Effendi What would we say about the Guardianship?
They met six times in the coming years. In one of those meetings, after “long and agonizing, and soul searching” consultation, as Ruhiyyih Khanum writes, they jointly made the decision to ask the Baha’i community not to vote for any of them in any Baha’i election. It was a remarkable step. It was not required of them. It was a step of undeniable selflessness. That same selflessness and humility characterized what they understood their duty to be in this situation.
They organised their meetings so that they had no permanent officers such as a chair, treasurer or secretary, as a further protection of the Baha’i Faith. At their first meeting they decided that the way ahead was to complete the work already planned by Shoghi Effendi – primarily the Ten Year Crusade – a truly heroic undertaking to settle Baha’is in virtually every country of the world — and to complete the work towards the establishment of the Universal House of Justice, an institution that Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l Baha’s writings clearly stated was vested with authority to administer the Baha’i Faith. These men and women had no plan — no goals of their own. They appointed nine of their number to act as Custodians — temporarily carrying out day to day administration of the Baha’i Faith.
As they wrote at the time, when the Universal House of Justice, “that divinely ordained Body comes into existence, all the conditions of the Faith can be examined anew and the measures necessary for its future operation determined in consultation with the Hands of the Cause.”
Under their leadership, the Baha’is achieved the goals Shoghi Effendi had set in 1953 and in April 1963, the Universal House of Justice was duly elected by national representatives of the Baha’is from all over the world. The election crowned the faithful stewardship of the Hands of the Cause.
After its establishment the Universal House of Justice rendered this glowing tribute to these wonderful human beings.
We do not wish to dwell on the appalling dangers which faced the infant Cause when it was suddenly deprived of our beloved Shoghi Effendi but rather to acknowledge with all the love and gratitude of our hearts the reality of the sacrifice, the labour, the self-discipline, the superb stewardship of the Hands of the Cause of God. We can think of no more fitting words to express our tribute to these dearly loved and valiant souls than to recall the words of Bahá’u’lláh Himself: ‘Light and glory, greeting and praise be upon the Hands of His Cause, through whom the light of long-suffering hath shone forth, and the declaration of authority is proven of God, the Powerful, the Mighty, the Independent; and through whom the sea of bestowal hath moved, and the breeze of the favour of God, the Lord of mankind, hath wafted.”‘ …
The entire history of religion shows no comparable record of such strict self-discipline, such absolute loyalty, and such complete self-abnegation by the leaders of a religion finding themselves suddenly deprived of their divinely inspired guide. The debt of gratitude which mankind for generations, nay, ages to come, owes to this handful of grief-stricken, steadfast, heroic souls is beyond estimation.
(This article is the 89th in a series of what I hope will be 200 articles in 200 days for the 200th anniversary of the birth of Bahá’u’lláh. The anniversary is being celebrated around the world on 21 and 22 October 2017, The articles are simply my personal reflections on Bahá’u’lláh’s life and work. Any errors or inadequacies in these articles are solely my responsibility.)
The details set out in this article are largely drawn from the Ministry of the Custodians, a description of their work and a collection of their messages to the Baha’is of the world. A sad footnote to this period of Bahai history is that one of the Hands of the Cause, Mason Remey, despite having co-signed the joint declarations of the Hands of the Cause, succumbed to ego, and two years after the passing of Shoghi Effendi proclaimed himself a ‘second Guardian’. His spurious claim was rejected by the remaining Hands of the Cause, and he was expelled from the Baha’i Faith, in accordance with the authority vested in them by Abdu’l Baha’s Will and Testament.