The Baha'i Faith

The Baha'i Faith begins, in some ways, in 1844, when a young man named Siyyid 'Ali-Muhammad claimed to be the promised redeemer of Islam and took on the title of "Bab," meaning "gate" or "door" in Arabic.

He also warned that a second divine messenger would appear imminently to usher in the age of peace and justice promised in Islam, Judaism, Christianity and other world religions.

A resulting movement spread across the Persian Empire, to the disdain of Islamic clergy. The Bab was executed in 1850 by a firing squad at age 30.

However, his Babi followers spread.

Two years later, one of them sat with a 100-pound iron chain around his neck in Tehran's notorious dungeon called the Black Pit. There, the man later known as Baha'u'llah, or "the Glory of God," received his first divine revelation.

Born in 1817, Baha'u'llah's noble ancestry stretched back to Iran's dynasties. Although raised in privilege, he grew into a man who focused on the poor and became one of the leading advocates of the Babi movement.

After the Bab's execution, Baha'u'llah was arrested, although his life was spared by his family's status. Instead, he was thrown into the Black Pit for four months.

After release, he spent 40 years in exile, at first in seclusion and then persecuted and imprisoned. Ultimately, in 1863, he and his followers camped in a garden on the Tigris River where he revealed he was the promised one foretold by the Bab and, as Baha'i today believe, all world scripture.

A prolific writer of his divine revelations, Baha'u'llah spent his final 24 years around the prison city of Acre, where he continued to teach that humanity is a single race and that the age has come for its unification.

"There is only one God, that all of the world's religions are from God, and that now is the time for humanity to recognize its oneness and unite," Baha'u'llah wrote.

Today, the Baha'i Faith is the youngest of the world's independent monotheistic religions. It has more than 5 million adherents worldwide and is the second-largest faith in South Carolina, according to the 2010 U.S. Religion Census.

For more, go to www.bahai.us.

Born at the fall of Reconstruction, Alonzo Twine had become one of Charleston's first black attorneys when he discovered a young faith devoted to the oneness of all people, black and white, men and women.

By the numbers

5 million

Number of Baha'is in the world

175,000

Baha'is in the United States

17,559

Baha'is in South Carolina

1,076

Baha'is in the tri-county area

Sources: Baha'i National Center, 2010 U.S. Religion Census

Twine learned of the Baha'i Faith through a fellow black attorney from Charleston named Louis Gregory, who had moved away but made a trip through the Deep South in 1910 to teach the faith's tenets of inclusivity. Twine became the state's first Baha'i.

Yet, his conversion didn't sit well with the Methodist minister whose venerable downtown church Twine and his family attended. Within a year, the Rev. I.E. Lowery and Twine's mother had the attorney committed to a state-run "insane asylum" in Columbia where black patients slept on floors, their cells infested with vermin, says Francis Marion University historian and Baha'i faithful Louis E. Venters.

Twine's key symptom: "religious obsession."

Twine died in the asylum three years later of a devastating illness caused by malnutrition, stripped of his freedom and the writings of his faith. It looked as if the Baha'i Faith in South Carolina might die with him.

Instead, it grew quietly, spreading through living room "firesides" and prayer groups, under the radar of many.

That's partly why a recent religion census drew a spate of national media attention to the Palmetto State. It was no surprise that the 2010 Religion Census found Christianity easily dominates here.

But who knew that 100 years after Twine's death, the Baha'i Faith has become South Carolina's second-largest religion? Not many people, except maybe the Baha'is themselves.

Baha'i basics

Founded in Iran in 1844, the Baha'i Faith teaches two core principles: the oneness of mankind and the oneness of world religions.

Baha'is believe in God's ongoing revelations to humanity through the central divine figures of the world's major religions. That includes Zoraster, Krishna, Buddha, Abraham, Moses, Christ, Mohammed and Baha'i founder Baha'u'llah.

These divine messengers each brought new teachings that advanced people's understanding of God based on the cultures and times they live in. While the social teachings differed, the essential spiritual messages did not (believe in God, be honest, loving, truthful, giving and so forth).

Of Baha'i teachings, few are as sacred as the belief in the oneness of humanity, regardless of race or class or gender. In South Carolina, that oneness brought Baha'is together in a Jim Crow era, when blacks and whites couldn't so much as drink from the same water fountain, much less worship in each other's homes.

Yet, that is just what they did.

Equality of man

David Springer wasn't looking for religion when he made a road trip from Iowa to Mexico with a buddy. It was 1969, and Springer was a 20-year-old college student.

He was looking for a good time. And maybe to learn some Spanish.

They hit Mexico City where, as America seethed over civil rights and war, Springer met several Baha'is. They talked. Springer listened. And he discovered a faith of racial and religious unity.

"It answered questions that I was concerned about and answered questions of the times. It made religion make sense," Springer recalls.

When his friends went out one day, he hung back. Alone, Springer opened a Baha'i prayer book. "The tone and tenor touched my heart," he recalls.

Then he picked up "Reality of Man," a collection of writings by Baha'u'llah and his son and successor, 'Abdu'l-Baha. Springer read about a whole new notion that all faiths, including his Christianity, are part of a single progression of revelation.

He returned home a Baha'i.

Springer later went on pilgrimages to the faith's holy sites in Israel. He met and married his wife, Bonnie, at a Baha'i gathering. They raised their children in the faith.

Today, he is one of nine people who serve on Charleston's Baha'i Spiritual Assembly, an elected council. He and Bonnie host the faith's regular Nineteen Day Feasts - part spiritual, part administrative and part social events - in their West Ashley home. (Baha'is have no clergy.)

Meetings often involve reading prayers. Some like to sing them hymn style, others in gospel, others chanting in Middle Eastern rhythms. Springer prefers to read the words.

"The important thing is that prayer comes from your heart," he says. "It's really beautiful."

'Noodling around'

Louis Venters' research into the Baha'i Faith began when he heard Radio Baha'i, broadcast out of Hemingway, while driving with his family. He was 13 and recalls a woman speaking about the global unity of man.

"It struck me immediately," he recalls. "I started noodling around as a very young person as best I could."

Ultimately, he decided becoming a historian would help. While researching his dissertation, he discovered Baha'is in South Carolina had woven bright interracial threads through the dark days of Jim Crow segregation.

He found that after Twine died in the asylum, Gregory continued to travel and teach, creating tiny Baha'i toeholds in North Augusta, then Greenville and Columbia. By the 1960s, the faith reached Charleston.

These early Baha'is realized that political and educational equality was one thing. But what really separated blacks and whites lingered in the far deeper recesses of worship, friendship and trust.

"The most devastating thing was the denial of the spiritual equality of black people, as if the souls of black people had become somehow tainted," Venters says. "Social equality and spiritual equality cut at the heart of Jim Crow."

Baha'is, black and white, began to meet in each other's homes, crossing neighborhoods to worship together, risky acts that violated strict social norms. Some black worshippers went to the back doors of white families' homes or arrived dressed as servants.

"Once everybody was inside and the blinds were drawn, we could be ourselves," Venters says.

Neighbors still called police. A cross was burned in front of a Baha'i's home. Police staked out meetings and forced some to close. Baha'is lost jobs and work.

"But no totalitarian system can police every space and every mind," says Venters, whose research is under contract with a university press to be published in spring 2015.

Even as the civil rights movement forced change, Baha'is still faced opposition.

In 1972, when the Louis G. Gregory Institute opened in Hemingway, early workers described shots fired at the building and a dog's head left in their mailbox.

Yet, the faith grew.

In the late 1960s, about 200 Baha'is lived in South Carolina. A decade later, that number had grown quietly to nearly 20,000, where it has stabilized.

New horizons

Deborah Deas' parents converted back in those early days of growth. Her grandfather was a minister, her father a deacon.

What would people think of her parents' conversion to the Baha'i Faith? They lived in rural Adams Run where everyone knew everyone.

Then her father learned that Baha'is believe the most recent divine messenger, Baha'u'llah, was the second coming of Christ. The faith marked a continuum from Christianity to them, not a step away from it.

"Christ is glorified," Deas says. "He knew it was not a rejection of Christ but rather an opportunity to have a better relationship with Christ."

She was 9 years old and recalls an influx of diverse Baha'is.

"The faith offered a spiritual empowerment when we lived in a world that made you feel disempowered," Deas recalls. "It brought something juxtaposed to what society was telling you at the time."

Her parents let her travel widely to Baha'i meetings, expanding her world view beyond their rural farm. She has since traveled to Baha'i temples and meetings in India, Japan, Australia, Germany and Panama and even made the pilgrimage to Israel.

Now 57, Deas is a child psychiatrist and head of the local spiritual assembly. She also is senior associate dean for medical education in the Medical University of South Carolina's College of Medicine, where her faith directs her to employ a diverse staff and shapes her view of work itself.

"Work is worship if done in the spirit of services," Deas says. "I'm their servant to make things better."

For all people.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.