Fascinating Bahá’í Talks Continue a Three-Decade Presence at the American Academy of Religion’s Annual Conference

Over 10,500 professors of Religious Studies, graduate students, clergy, and interested others attended the 2013 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, held November 23–26 in Baltimore, Maryland, USA. Among those attending were at least six Bahá’ís. A Bahá’í book display in the exhibit hall, where some 200 publishers showed their works, provided a basic description of the Faith and offered copies of authoritative Bahá’í texts and works of Bahá’í history, biography, commentary, and theology.

The main Bahá’í event was the Bahá’í Studies Colloquy, a two-hour panel of papers on Bahá’í topics. Mikhail Sergeev, an adjunct faculty at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, opened the program with “Interpretation, Administration, Worship: A Comparison of the Bahá’í and Catholic Organizational Principles.” His main focus was the application of a definition of “modernity” to the two systems, a definition that fit the Bahá’í system better, because of the greater role for consultation and elections and the complementary nature of the Guardianship and the Universal House of Justice.

Benjamin B. Olshin, an adjunct professor at the University of the Arts, then spoke about “Harmony and Unity: Common Principles in Confucianism and the Bahá’í Faith.” He reviewed the major principles that define a well-functioning Confucian society, noting similarities and differences with Bahá’í concepts. Particularly striking was the discussion of tien, often translated as “heaven” or even “God” but originally denoting the organizing principles of the universe.

Susan Maneck, a professor of history at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi, summarized her research on “Dempsey Morgan: Tuskegee Airman, Bahá’í Pioneer.” After World War II ended, Morgan, an African American officer, earned a PhD in psychology from Wayne State University and pioneered to Vietnam and several African countries, where he led many mass teaching efforts. He retired to South Carolina and Virginia, where he ceaselessly taught the Bahá’í Faith to others. He was one of at least two, possibly three, Bahá’ís among the thousand or so Tuskegee airmen. 

Robert H. Stockman, an adjunct professor at Indiana University South Bend, South Bend, Indiana, closed the panel with “`Abdu’l-Bahá’s 1912 Visit to the United States: Its Immediate Impact on the Bahá’ís.” He reviewed the enrollment data, which showed no major surge in membership but noted the long term impact of `Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit on consolidation, teaching the Faith, reaching out to minorities, and organization. `Abdu’l-Bahá’s private talks to the Bahá’ís were crucial for preparing them for two major documents: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Tablets of the Divine Plan, revealed in 1916–17, and the Will and Testament of `Abdu’l-Bahá, made public in January 1922 after His death on November 28, 1921.

The Bahá’í Studies Colloquy has been a part of the American Academy of Religion for three decades. The first Bahá’í panel was held at the AAR conference in 1983 or 1984. The Bahá’í presence at the conference has gradually raised the Faith’s profile among religious studies professionals and may be one reason why the Bahá’í Faith is now included more widely in textbooks. Next year’s AAR will be held November 22–25, 2014, in San Diego, California, USA.