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The Bahá’í faith originated in Persia (present-day Iran) in the mid-1800s as a movement within a minority sect of Islam led by a man known as the Báb (whose name means “the gate”). After his execution by Iranian leaders, one of the Báb’s followers, a man known as Bahá'u'lláh, became the leader of the movement and claimed to be the Messianic figure written about by the Báb. Bahá'u'lláh established the Bahá’í faith as a new religion and, after many exiles, was finally sent to Akka, Palestine (in present-day Israel), where he spent the remainder of his days. Bahá'u'lláh appointed his son, `Abdu'l-Bahá, to assume leadership of the Bahá’í faith upon his death.
Central tenets of the Bahá’í faith include the oneness of God and religion, the oneness of humanity, freedom from prejudice, the inherent nobility of the human being, the progressive revelation of religious truth, the development of spiritual qualities, the immortality of the human soul, the integration of worship and service, the fundamental equality of the sexes, the harmony between religion and science, the centrality of justice to all human endeavors, and the importance of education.
The Bahá’í faith arrived in the United States in 1892 when Syrian convert George Kheiralla settled in Chicago, Illinois, and began teaching classes on the religion. Interest in the faith spread as `Abdu'l-Bahá corresponded with his American followers, and more Bahá’í teachers arrived in the United States in the early 1900s. With `Abdu'l-Bahá’s visit to the United States in 1912, the number of American Bahá’ís increased.
The earliest record of the Bahá’í faith in Arkansas is the inclusion of a Mrs. Edward Ruppers of Genoa (Miller County) in a list of Bahá’ís in America as of January 1, 1913; Mr. and Mrs. Ruppers had relocated to Phoenix, Arizona, by 1922. A 1928 national membership list included J. A. Patterson of Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) and Mrs. C. E. Hines of Blockton.
A more organized attempt to bring the religion to Arkansas appears to have commenced in 1938 and 1939. Rezsi Sunshine, listed as a Bahá’í pioneer, opened a business in Hot Springs (Garland County) and held regular meetings there and in Little Rock (Pulaski County). Bahá’í Lydia Martin became dean of women at Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical, and Normal College (now University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff), where she scheduled Bahá'í teacher Louis G. Gregory as speaker and advisor for the school’s Religious Emphasis Week. When Gregory left Pine Bluff after two months, Martin continued with intensive study classes, reporting that approximately twelve members of the Bahá’í group were ready to enroll as believers by 1940. In addition to Sunshine and Martin, other isolated believers listed as residing in Arkansas in the 1939–1940 Bahá’í Directory were Mattie R. Stewart of Camden (Ouachita County) and Noah Sherdy and Boma Edens of El Dorado (Union County).
The 1940–1941 annual report from the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada asserted that “the first Arkansas believer,” Roberta Wilson, was confirmed in Hot Springs in early 1940, with two more, Martha Hackett and Mrs. Robert Lee Baird confirmed in September. Throughout the rest of 1940 and into 1941, national and regional leaders visited Hot Springs to give public lectures at the Arlington and Eastman hotels. From Hot Springs, some of the speakers moved on to Little Rock, giving talks and organizing study classes.
Arkansas’s first Local Spiritual Assembly (a Bahá'í community's administrative body composed of nine elected members) was formed in Little Rock in 1943. In 2015, there were five Local Spiritual Assemblies in Arkansas: in Fayetteville (Washington County), Little Rock, North Little Rock (Pulaski County), Rogers (Benton County), and Springdale (Washington and Benton counties). That same year, there were sixteen groups in Arkansas: in Arkadelphia (Clark County), Beebe (White County), Bella Vista (Benton County), Benton County, Carroll County, Conway (Faulkner County), England (Lonoke County), Fort Smith (Sebastian County), Garland County, Izard County, Maumelle (Pulaski County), Norfork (Baxter County), Pine Bluff, Pulaski County, and Russellville (Pope County). The 2015 membership list of Bahá’ís in the United States includes 1,350 residing in Arkansas.
For additional information:Bahá’í Community of Greater Little Rock. http://www.lrbahais.org/ (accessed October 13, 2015).
The Bahá’í Faith. http://www.bahai.org (accessed October 13, 2015).
Lisa G. Herndon Interview with Homer Holmes, November 19, 1974. Oral History Collection. Center for Arkansas History and Culture. University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Little Rock, Arkansas.
Storm, Christie. “The Fast Track.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 8, 2014, pp. 4B–5B.
Sarah Bost UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture
Last Updated 10/20/2015
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