The Bahá’í Faith and Wicca – A Comparison of Relevance in Two Emerging Religions, Part 1- Overlapping Circles


The purpose of this paper is to make comparisons between the growth and potential for further development of the Bahá’í Faith and Wicca in Britain. This study uses the Theory of Relevance developed by Sperber and Wilson to explain cognition in the field of linguistics and applied to the field of religious studies by the author in an earlier work.

The paper begins by outlining the milieu in which both traditions began and notes possible overlaps of individuals and networks. It continues by contrasting motifs of beliefs and values between the two systems and investigates the history of both by arguing that relevance is the driving force in their respective development. Thus, the Bahá’í Faith which began by attracting radical and progressive elements gradually became more conservative as its principles became generally accepted and its legalistic structure ensured the upholding of traditional concepts of family and sexuality. Conversely, the interaction with feminism and the ecology movement caused Wiccans to embrace a radical and inclusive perspective which was not present in the inception of Gardnerian tradition. Finally, the potential for growth and influence of both traditions is assessed within the context of the Theory of Relevance.


The genesis of this paper was the introduction of a course on Wicca which caused me to peruse some of the literature outlining the life and work of Gerald Gardner and the re-emergence (or invention) of Paganism, the work which I found of particular interest was Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon[1] which described the macrocosm of language, belief and culture in which Wicca emerged, many of these seemed very similar to the networks I had previously described as contexts and used in the study of the early Bahá’ís in the British Isles[2] This raised the question of possible overlaps of either individuals and networks the identification of which is the purpose of the first part of this paper.


(The Baha’i ring-stone symbol, a calligraphic rendering of the phrase “Allah’u’abha”, means “God is most glorious”)


The Bahá’í Movement and the Bahá’í Faith

There is plenty of introductory material available on the Bahá’í Faith it suffices to say that it was founded in Persia in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The first of its key figures was Siyyid Ali-Muhammad (1819 – 1850) titled The Bab (The Gate). The teachings of the Bab were seeped in traditional Islamic magic, His use of talismans and sigils, often in the shape of pentagrams, were the same as those Arab philosophers and occultists expounded.   The Bab proclaimed himself to be the Promised One of Islam, the Qa’im, and said that his Mission was to alert people to the imminent advent of another Prophet, “Him Whom God shall make manifest”. This was Mirza Husayn-Ali (1817 – 1892) titled Baha’u’llah (The Glory of God) the Prophet-Founder of the Bahá’í Faith who revealed some fifteen thousand Writings (referred to as Tablets) which include the revelation of the foundation principles of a “new world order of society founded on the unity of mankind, equality and justice.”[3] Baha’u’llah named His eldest son Abbas (1844 – 1921) titled Abdu’l Baha (the Servant of the Glory) as His successor, Abdu’l Baha made two historic journeys to the West, between 1911 and 1913 in the course of these journeys he met and spoke with his Western disciples and was required to answer their questions and address their agendas. The fourth and final figure is Shoghi Effendi (1897 – 1957) grandson of Abdu’l Baha and designated Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith; he was educated in Oxford and married to a Canadian, his mastery of the English language was exceptional, and he was fully conversant with Western manners and customs. When Shoghi Effendi died without an heir the leadership of the Bahá’í community passed to The Universal House of Justice an elected body of nine men based in Haifa.

The Bahá’í Faith, as it is known today, did not begin to emerge in Britain, even in an inchoate form, until the mid-1930s, what existed prior to that, from 1899 until the early 1930s, will be called here the Bahá’í Movement or Bahaism which is how its adherents referred to it and to distinguish it from the Bahá’í Faith which was to follow.

In Britain, the loosely knit groups of individuals who first identified themselves as Bahá’ís became the Bahá’í Movement, which was subsequently replaced by the Bahá’í Faith. It is important to Bahá’ís today to be recognised as a discrete world religion, and much Bahá’í literature begins by stressing its separateness from other religions. This has not always been the case; the Bahá’ís in Britain prior to 1930 repeatedly denied that they were a new or separate religion, some referring to themselves as Bahá’í Christians and retaining or, in some cases, acquiring church membership. The principle distinction, then, between the Movement and the Faith, was that the majority of pre-1930 Bahá’ís did not perceive themselves to be part of an independent religion, but rather saw Bahaism as being a supplement to their existing religious beliefs, and, in many cases, practices. This paper, then, defines the British Bahá’í Movement as a ‘supplementary religious movement’, based on the following criterion: membership of the Bahá’í Movement required no act of conversion; adherents remained in (and in some cases joined) other religious organisations and no break with pre-existing belief was required. Bahaism was not seen as an alternative to other traditions, rather as a method whereby these traditions could be interpreted in a wider context.

In the case of the British Bahá’ís of this period, pre-existing links were the basis of networks within the Bahá’í Movement, and each network had its own understanding of what constituted Bahaism, so people were thus attracted to a particular version of Bahaism which dovetailed with pre-existing beliefs, and which was reinforced by pre-existing social relations.

Wicca and the Pagan Movement

(Witchcraft Today – 1954)

Wicca, witchcraft or Paganism is much harder to define, as it has no single authority, no single cannon of scripture and an amazingly varied set of beliefs and practices, in fact it seems hard to find consensus amongst Pagans, despite this vagueness (or perhaps because of) Pagans seem happy to differ and many operate in eclectic groups. One event is, however, agreed upon to be of great significance in the re-emergence of Paganism and that is the publication of Witchcraft Today in 1954.  This slim volume was the work of Gerald Gardner (1884-1964) a retired civil servant who had spent most of his adult life in the Far East, when he returned to England in 1936 he had missed the religious ferment of London in the first decades of the century and was not a part of a pre-existent network. Gardner would claim that he encountered witches in the New Forest through the Crotona Fellowship which formed part of a Rosicrucian Theatre group. The beliefs and rituals of these witches Gardner claimed were survivals of a pre-Christian religion similar to that described by Margaret Murray.[4] Gardner was certainly familiar with Far Eastern magical ideas; he had published a number of monographs on Malay culture and Cypriot metalwork which demonstrate a preoccupation with the magical uses of daggers[5]. That he met with Aleister Crowley on a number of occasions and was initiated into the O.T.O by Crowley in 1947 is well known, what is disputed is the role of Crowley in the development of the rituals Gardner would describe in his book. Those questions are outside the scope of this paper; however, what may be significant was Gardner’s inability to revive the O.T.O. this may have caused him to consider the use of a different approach when he set about publicising Wicca. It is possible that Gardner’s interest in a public museum, where he was “resident witch” chatting to the customers and articles in the popular press may have been an attempt to make contact with groups and or individuals – if there were any “survivors” out there they would be drawn to his beacon.

The authenticity of Gardner’s claims to the antiquity of the rituals he described do not concern us here, but the parallel development with the Bahá’ís. Any person claiming a hereditary Pagan background[6] or even simply that Wicca was a survival of an Old Religion, was tacitly acknowledging a “supplementary religious movement” because anyone openly practising such a tradition prior to the repeal of the Witchcraft Act would, presumably have been subject to prosecution, consequently, some form of conformity to Christian norms was required.

I had originally intended to restrict the content of this paper to remarks on what might be termed “Gardnerian Wicca”, however, the process by which Wicca has developed into the nucleus of the wider Pagan Movement is worthy of interest in so far as it is almost a reversal of the process by which the Bahá’í Movement became the Bahá’í Faith.  Consequently, the second part of this paper includes references to the wider Pagan community.

The Theory of Relevance

For the full statement of the theory of relevance, recourse must be had to Sperber and Wilson:[7] what follows now is the very barest of its bones. When we overhear part of a conversation, that is something not addressed to oneself, it is often incomprehensible, even though it is in one’s own mother tongue. Let us say we overhear the sentence: “They are all at it.” We do not know who they are, nor what they are up to, only that it is probably something highly reprehensible. What comes from our automatic and inevitable processing of the sounds is technically known as a partial semantic representation. What we do not know is the context of the utterance, and we might allow our imagination freedom to fit any number of possible contexts to this partial semantic representation just for our own speculative amusement. If we knew the appropriate context to apply, and every conversation creates much of its own rolling context, then the utterance becomes disambiguated and enriched and can create a considerable contextual effect such that our amusement might be instead horror and outrage at the awfulness of what was taking place. Two types of action are then involved in comprehension: the first, linguistic processing to yield a partial semantic representation; the second, inference whereby contexts are matched against the representation until the appropriate one fits, thereby generating its contextual effect through disambiguation, reference assignment and enrichment. The question is, how do we know what the appropriate context is? Here the theory of relevance offers an explanation.

The theory of relevance proposes that everything addressed to someone by somebody else comes with a guarantee of relevance. Not only that, but the speaker will have put it in such a way that the addressee will have no difficulty grasping it. The theory of relevance therefore proposes that the appropriate context is the one which produces the maximum contextual effect with the minimum of processing effort. It argues that having contextual effects is a necessary condition for relevance, and that, other things being equal, the greater the contextual effect, the greater the relevance. A context is a set of assumptions, which are likely to be held with varying degrees of strength or conviction, with which the new information interacts, thereby producing the contextual effect. The contextual effects discussed in the theory are of three main types: contextual implication, the contradiction of existing assumptions and the strengthening of existing assumptions. Ultimately the theory emerged from the shift that took place a few decades ago in linguistics from production theory to reception theory, which led to greater interest being taken in pragmatics. It also derived from developments in the cognitive sciences and in semantics and logic. One of its most significant innovations is its recognition that the context is not the predetermined given, as was previously assumed, but rather there is, even in everyday conversation, a choice of contexts, the choice resolved by the principle of relevance, the pursuit of which, they argue, is the goal of human cognition.

It used to be thought that humans had a special ‘language’ faculty that distinguished humankind from the animal and other kingdoms. It is now recognised that in fact we use the same procedures in processing speech and meaning as we do in processing and making sense of the world. Further, as Sperber and Wilson emphasise, language is not unique to humans,[8] nor is communication, what is original, as far as one knows, is the human use of language in communication, alongside other mediums.[9] What matters here, is that relevance is not restricted in its application to the domains of cognition and communication. Relevance intuitively can figure in all domains. What is proposed now is that the theory of relevance is the most elegant and fruitful way of accounting for how individual people are attracted to religious movements. There is a neutrality about relevance, as there is about the notion of a good fit because the two notions belong to a realm at the interface of fact and value. There is a bit of fact and a bit of value in both, but not too much of either. To say that an individual was drawn into a particular religious movement because it was relevant to them at the time, or fitted and suited them as they were then, is greatly to be preferred both to the attribution to them of social or psychological inadequacy, as in the deprivation theory of the anti-cult movement, or to the suggestion they attained sainthood in some Damascene transformation, as can be implied in the term conversion. How then would the principle of relevance work in the domain of religion?

Every individual can be considered a context, or at least, a potential context, in that they can be seen as a unique sets of assumptions, values, feelings and attitudes at any given moment.  Just as each new utterance changes the context of the next utterance in communication, so individuals are ever-changing contexts, although they often represent themselves to themselves and others as remaining more or less the same person. In the course of their lives individuals are constantly processing new information, filtering out and dismissing much that which does not appear relevant to themselves.  Largely this is an automatic process of the human reactive mechanism which gives an instant yes or no to an idea, feeling or sensation, quite often before it has reached the threshold of conscious awareness where individuals imagine they make choices.  Despite the kaleidoscopic nature of the individual as a context, and the automatic pre-conscious censorship of the reactive mechanism, people, like the ‘selfish gene’, are actively alert to anything which is relevant to themselves. Depending on the individual’s biography and the accidents which have conditioned much of the automatic   reactive mechanism, there are many for whom that which pertains to the ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ is potentially relevant, to the point that their reactive mechanism lets such ‘messages’ through for conscious consideration.

The degree of relevance to the individual is measured by the contextual effect created when the new ‘message,’ in whatever form it takes, – it could be an experience, an encounter, or a simple act of love and consideration, as well as a communication, – meets with the assumptions, values, feelings and attitudes of the individual in their configuration at that particular moment. The three main contextual effects discussed above, contextual implication, the contradiction of existing assumptions and the confirmation of existing assumptions, will serve well here.  To be told: “Christ died for you” can, and should, have profound implications for every Christian, and can be taken as an example of the first type of contextual effect.  For the second type, one’s personal beliefs contain deeply held assumptions, and when these are challenged it can and does produce a considerable effect, although whether this results in the need to author a treatise contra someone or other, or produces, after deliberation, a change of mind, will depend on the circumstances.  Of the third type there will be many examples in what follows. It is not just a case of saying the producer of the ‘message’ is ‘right’, or the self-satisfaction of being ‘right’ oneself, nor the anticipation that the producer might be useful to one’s cause, rather it is more often that the contextual effect is created by the confirmation that one’s own personal subjective reality is shared and has, thereby, an objectivity as well.

There remains one highly important element in relevance theory to consider: that of the inferential process that matches the appropriate context to the partial semantic representation and permits the disambiguation, reference assignment and enrichment which then gives rise to the contextual effects.  When a message is ambiguous or unclear, it leaves room for individuals to disambiguate it in their own ways, to make their own inferences and to enrich it as they will.  The enigmatic guru is often the most ‘charismatic’ simply because his followers have the scope to interpret and enrich his status and behaviour according to what they most desire him to be and do, often later to be disappointed. 

Part One – Overlapping Circles

The most significant difficulty in relating the Bahá’í Movement to Wicca and the most obvious is chronology, the Bahá’í Movement as I have defined it ended in 1930, six years before Gardner’s return to England and twenty four years before the publication of Witchcraft Today. It seemed unlikely there would be direct contact between Gardner’s circle and the Bahá’ís. Furthermore the exact membership of Gardner’s group is not known, so it appeared even less likely that any of the few undisputed names would have a Bahá’í connection, however, this contention proved unfounded as a central figure of “The First Rosicrucian Theatre in England”, the woman credited with introducing Gardner to the elusive Dorothy Clutterbuck was Mabel Scott Besant. Mabel Scott Besant was the daughter of Annie Besant, both women were Theosophists and Co-Masons. Annie Besant met ‘Abdu’l Baha several times in London. ‘Abdu’l Baha addressed the Theosophical Society in London at her personal invitation as President of the Society.  Such a cordial relationship between the leaders of these two movements strongly suggests the possibility that that Annie Besant would have introduced ‘Abdu’l Baha to her daughter and successor.


(The Order of Woodcraft Chivalry was founded by Ernest Westlake)

Another link may be found it is a small booklet (16 pages) called “Woodcraft Chivalry” by Aubrey T. Westlake, B.A.  Printed by The Mendip Press, Ltd. in Weston-Super-Mare and dated 1917 on the title page is printed ” A paper read to the London Bahais, December,1916″. The Order of Woodcraft Chivalry had been founded by Ernest Westlake and his son Aubrey in 1916, when they grew disillusioned with the Boy Scout movement. In 1922 Harry Dion Byngham joined the Order, Byngham is suggested by Hesleton to have been important to Gardner’s thinking: “There is one individual (Byngham) whom it is highly likely that Gardner met some time during the crucial years between 1936 and 1940 and who had substantial influence on him”[10] Just how influential Byngham was, or even if he ever met Gardner is open to question, however, some writers have gone as far as suggesting that a group within The Order of Woodcraft Chivalry that was central to the development of Wicca “Steve Wilson … claims to have proved: … that there was in the New Forest, a group working the 4 quarters, stark naked, and invoking a horned god and moon goddess using Crowley’s Hymn to Pan by 1923”. [11] The role of Byngham and the Woodcrafters may be disputed but there clearly was a link with the Bahá’ís as early as 1916.

Whilst many of the Bahá’ís had links with Theosophy and ‘Abdu’l Baha spoke at a number of Theosophical venues, the network amongst the Bahá’ís which had the most in common with the ideas which would crystallise into Paganism in its broadest sense were the Celtic Network. The Celtic Network is the term used to describe those who adhered to the Bahá’í Movement from the perspective of the Celtic mystery tradition or the Western occult systems. The dominant figures of this network were Wellesley Tudor Pole and Alice Buckton. Members of this network were mainly known to each other prior to their involvement with Bahaism. Their interest in Celtic mysticism is the bond between them and consequently, the context in which they found relevance in the Bahá’í teachings.

In 1902 Wellesley Tudor Pole experienced a dream which was to have a profound effect on him and incidentally initiate the second of the networks around Bahaism. Pole dreamt that he was a monk at Glastonbury Abbey. So powerful was the experience he felt compelled to travel to Glastonbury, he claimed he found the town just as he had seen it in his dream. Pole became convinced that Glastonbury was his spiritual home and that something awaited him to discover it there. He also received an impression that he would need a “triad of maidens” to find the relic.[12]

Pole was one of the five children of Thomas Pole and Kate Wansbourgh. Thomas Pole was an unconventional man involved in Fabian socialism, theosophy and the Garden Cities movement.[13] This latter interest was shared by his friend Sir Patrick Geddes, who would play an important role in the Bahá’í activities in Edinburgh. The entire Pole family were enthusiastic amateur spiritualists and between them published several short books channelled from the spirit world. In September 1906, Wellesley with his sister Katherine and her friends Janet Allen and Christine Duncan (née Allen) discovered an artifact in St. Bride’s Well in Glastonbury. Their find was a curious blue glass bowl. Dr. John Arthur Goodchild (b. 1851) placed the bowl in the well in 1899. Goodchild was an English medical practitioner. He spent the winters in Bordighera, [Italy] treating the many English tuberculosis patients resident there. His summers were spent either in Hampstead or Bath. In February 1885 he purchased the glass bowl and platter in a tailor’s shop in Bordighera. The vendor claimed these items had been found bricked up in the walls of an old building which was being demolished in Albegna, a village between Bordighera and Genoa.[14] Goodchild took the items back to London. He showed his find to Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks (1826-1897), Keeper of the British and Medieval Antiquities at the British Museum. Franks’ findings were inconclusive. The bowl was unlike any other known example. He thought it was probably ancient and could not explain the process of its manufacture. The bowl and dish were locked away in a cupboard in the Goodchild home in Hampstead, where they remained for the next ten years.

Goodchild was not merely a physician. He wrote books of poetry and prose but he was also engaged on a much higher quest: to seek out the true roots of spiritual life in the West.[15] Whilst much mystical seeking at this time was directed towards the East, there was also a movement to rediscover the Western mystical tradition, much of the emphasis of this movement centred on the pre-Christian Celtic culture of the British Isles. Goodchild believed that a high culture had existed in Ireland prior to the coming of Christianity. He began to write up his theories in a work that would eventually bear the title The Light of the West. In The Light of the West Goodchild outlined a history of Ireland, which he claimed was a matriarchal, goddess-worshipping society. Central to this scenario is the figure of Saint Bride [Brigit] (453-523), whose traditional role as the foster mother of Christ is recounted to integrate both the pagan and Christian aspects of Celtic culture. Goodchild’s understanding of Celtic religion was intensely feminist. He argued for the restoration of the feminine in all aspects of life. Goodchild summed it up:

“The Light of the West is the beauty of womanhood. It inculcates the hatred of warfare, and of empires established by the greed of nations or rulers. It preaches woman’s desire for the empire of love.”[16]

In 1897, shortly before the publication of his book, Dr. Goodchild was staying in Paris on his way back to Italy. He experienced an intense psychic experience in his hotel room. He heard a voice telling him that Jesus once carried the bowl in the house in Hampstead. It was also to be important in the century to come. The voice told Goodchild to hide the bowl in St. Bride’s Well, Glastonbury, where a woman would find it. The bowl was to be cared for by a woman. Thus Pole, his sister Kitty and her two friends eventually found the bowl. The Poles knew Goodchild. He was a very close friend of William Sharpe (1855-1905), a man who wrote novels about the Celtic past under the name of Fiona McLeod. Sharpe claimed the spirit of this Highland woman possessed him when he wrote. The nature of Fiona was a secret even from Goodchild, whose friendship with Sharpe began with a correspondence with his non-existent “cousin” Fiona. Ms McLeod’s publisher was none other than Thomas Pole’s friend in the Garden City Movement, Sir Patrick Geddes. Sharpe was also friends with W. B. Yeats whose connections with both the Golden Dawn and the politics of the Celtic Revival are well known. Yeats refers to Sharpe’s work on several occasions.

The Allen sisters met with Basil Wilberforce in London and at a subsequent meeting in Dean’s Yard in July 1907 about forty people were present at amongst them R. J. Campbell and Alice Buckton. Both of these people would play an important role in the growth of Bahaism. Alice Buckton, a writer and educationalist was to become deeply involved in the Celtic Network around the vessel and Glastonbury. Alice Mary Buckton was born in Hindhead, Surrey in 1867. She was one of the eight children of the polymath and scientist George Bowdler Buckton (1817-1905). From her youth Alice was interested in helping others. As a young woman she was involved with Octavia Hill’s (1838-1912) Southwark Women’s University Settlement. She was deeply impressed with the work of Hill in the field of housing. Although herself childless, Buckton was deeply concerned about motherhood, children and education, Patrick Benham writes “She saw woman pre-eminently as mother, but a motherhood not confined to the raising of her own children. It stood for a power to feed and nourish and support life, wherever and however that life required it.”[17] Buckton seems to have been well aquatinted with feminine notions of spirituality based on the concept of the universal mother.

The German Friederich Wilhelm August Froebel (1782-1852) influenced her in the field of education. Buckton visited the Pestalozzi-Froebel Haus in Germany. She persuaded the principal, Annette Schepel (d. 1931) to join her in England and work in the Sesame Garden and House for Home Life Training in St. John’s Wood. Buckton and Schepel were life long partners. They lived together until Shepel’s death in Glastonbury in 1931. Alice Buckton was already a well-established playwright and poet when she accepted Wilberforce’s invitation to hear Pole explain about his Glastonbury bowl. The meeting changed her life. She wrote to Pole describing her feelings about the bowl on 8 August, six days later he met her. On 20 September 1907 Buckton made her first visit to the Clifton Oratory. The emphasis on women’s’ spirituality and the role of the bowl in the reinstatement of the feminine in the religions of the West were totally in line with her own ideas.[18] On the 23 September, the members of the triad took her to visit the well. The next day Buckton met Dr Goodchild for the first time. Buckton expressed her belief that a community of women should eventually be formed in Glastonbury around the spiritual beacon of the cup. To this end Buckton purchased the Chalice Well and the former Catholic seminary in whose grounds it was in 1912.

Dion Fortune (1890-1946) stayed at Alice Buckton’s community guest house in Glastonbury, before purchasing her own property in the town. Fortune, who was arguably the most important figure in the revival of occultism in Britain, wrote extensively about Buckton in her book about Glastonbury, Avalon of the Heart. She also wrote about the “Christos” as part of a sequence of bringers of esoteric knowledge in a way very similar to the Bahá’í concept of “Progressive Revelation”. In the passage below Dion Fortune equates Abdu’l Baha with Buddha, Osiris and Krishna:

“Each Christos who comes to the world has a special mission to fulfill in relation to the evolution of humanity. Osiris taught his people the arts of civilisation, Krishna taught them philosophy, Buddha taught the way of escape from the bondage of matter, Abdul Baha taught social morality. If there are those who object to these Great Ones being ranked with Our Lord as manifestations of God[19] and Saviours of mankind, then esoteric science must agree to differ from them …initiates of the Western Tradition will not agree to Our Lord being swept aside as merely a good man who taught according to his lights, nor yet as a medium who was used by the Christ.”[20]

Fortune was well known to the Celtic Network Bahá’ís and the above passage (written about 1930 but reiterating concepts developed earlier) would indicate that their relevance for people seeped in Western occult tradition would be obvious. Fortune is one of the four people described by Hutton as one of the “God (and Goddess) Parents” of Wicca. It is not known if Fortune and Gardner ever met, however, Heselton[21] speculates they may have met at the Fouracres naturist club in Bricket Wood. Whether or not Fortune and Gardner met, Fortune’s importance to the development of modern Paganism is undisputed, as is her knowledge of and interaction with some of the Bahá’í s.

Despite her unconventional ideas Buckton remained firmly within the Church of England. Benham writes,

“Unlike a lot of other people working for social change and recommending new ideas, Alice had never forsaken the Anglican Church of her upbringing. She certainly transcended the status quo, embracing a kind of mystical pantheism while keeping hold of the essential tenets of the faith. The small fly-leaf dedication to Eager Heart summarises her view perfectly: “Inscribed to all who see and worship the One in the Many.”[22]

Buckton was however committed to Bahaism as part of her understanding of Christianity as did most of the Celtic Network influenced as they were by New Theology and Christian socialism. Pole described his introduction to Bahaism in an interview in the Christian Commonwealth of 28 December 1910.[23] He said “I first heard of the movement when on a visit to Constantinople prior to the Turkish revolution in 1908 … When I returned to London I found very little was known about the movement and I determined to visit ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.”  Pole goes on to reinforce his point “And it is extraordinary that so little should be known of the movement in England.” What is significant about this passage is the fact that as far as Pole was concerned Bahaism was virtually unknown in England when he discovered it in Constantinople in 1908. Pole was known to Buckton, Campbell and Wilberforce from mid 1907, clearly none of them knew about Bahaism at that time. Consequently, it can be asserted with confidence that Pole and his Celtic Network were well established prior to their discovery of Bahaism. This means that they found relevance in their understanding of Bahaism by fitting it into established ideas about religion, mysticism, spiritualism and the role of the spiritual in history.


Whilst some of the interplay between the  Bahá’í Movement and the circle around Gardner could be dismissed as generalised and simply part of a vague “alternative religion” milieu, there are some significant overlaps.  In some ways the Celtic Network Bahá’í s could be considered more the forerunners of the modern Pagan movement that of the modern Bahá’í  Faith. Their interest in the Western occult tradition albeit in their case from a generally Christian perspective, is still central to today’s Wiccans and Pagans, whilst it is hardly present at all in Bahá’í circles. Pole chose to withdraw from the Bahá’í community in 1923 and although Buckton and Schepel remained members until their deaths, they were inactive.

The Bahá’ís were becoming increasingly inward looking, as early as 1935 Bahá’ís in the United States of America were told to leave “non- Religious Organisations”[24] in a letter dated February 1957 Shoghi Effendi requested Bahá’ís withdraw from Masonic orders and other secret societies[25], he further stated that “A Bahá’í cannot at the same time be a Theosophist[26]”. Bahá’ís had been required to terminate church affiliation[27] and to leave “Spiritist” groups[28] , furthermore in 1955 Shoghi Effendi[29] reinforced earlier prohibitions on political involvement, calling for Bahá’ís to “refrain from associating themselves … with the political pursuits of their respective nations”, membership of political parties was not allowed and voting in elections limited to voting for individuals rather than parties. Although political quietism had been part of Bahá’í Teaching from the earliest days in Iran, it would not have pleased some of the early British Bahá’ís who were involved in women’s suffrage issues. This was a closing down of networking and consequently a reduction in contextualisation of relevance. The Bahá’í Movement had shared its members with the Theosophical Society, Masonic Lodges, Churches and the Independent Labour Party, the emergent Bahá’í Faith was to stand aloof from such diverse organisations.

That the Bahá’ís had declined numerically is clear from the recollections of Philip Hainsworth (1919-2001) who became a Bahá’í in 1937. “I came across some old records and was able to work out that there could only have been eighty registered believers in England, and none in the whole of Ireland, Scotland and Wales at the time I became a Bahá’í.”[30] This would be substantiated by the Bahá’í Journal of February 1938 which lists only thirty-five “isolated believers,” that is Bahá’ís outside of the two towns of London and Manchester, which had functioning assemblies.

In 1951 when Gardner founded his own coven Hainsworth quotes the 1951 National Spiritual Assembly’s Report to Convention “there were 274 voting believers of which 55 were of Persian origin”, he then points out “This meant the community had increased its numbers threefold in a decade, the Persian element being 20 per cent.”[31] The reason for this growth spurt was that after a protracted period of stagnation the British s had embarked upon the first of a series of strategic plans for growth. Both Wicca and Bahá’í were on the cusp of making the change from a supplementary religious movement to an independent religious tradition. Superficially the s with their centralised administration and international structures based upon clearly defined beliefs looked the more likely to make the transformation than the two small groups around Gardner and his book. However, fifty years later when the UK Census asked questions about religion for the first time, the Bahá’ís after half a century of tirelessly “teaching the Faith” numbered only 6,000 while the assorted Pagans could muster 100,000[32] with no effort at proselytizing at all – which leads to the second question addressed by this paper – how were the Pagans so much more relevant?

by Lil L.C. Osborn

[1] Ronald Hutton, Triumph of the Moon (Oxford: OUP, 1999)

[2] Abdo, LCG. Religion & Relevance, the Bahá’í s in Britain 1899 – 1930  (PhD thesis, SOAS London University,  2004)

[3] Momen, Wendi, ed.. A Basic Bahá’í  Dictionary (Oxford: George Ronald, 1989) 41

[4] Murray, Margaret, The Witch Cult in Western Europe (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1921)

[5] Hutton ibid p223

[6] For example, Alex Sanders is quoted in Hutton (ibid, p. 320) as having “been told by his grandmother of a witch ancestress”

[7]  Sperber, Dan and Deridre Wilson, Relevance, Communication and Cognition (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986)

[8] “The activities which necessarily involve the use of language (i.e., a grammar governed representational system) are not communicative but cognitive. Language is an essential tool for the processing and memorising of information. As such, it must exist not only in humans but also in a wide variety of animals and machines with information processing abilities. Any organism or device with a memory must be able to represent past states of the world or itself. Any organism or device with the ability to draw inferences must have a representational system whose formulas stand on both syntactic and semantic relations to each other. Clearly these abilities are not confined to humans.” Ibid., p. 173.

[9] “The great debate about whether humans are the only species to have language is based upon a misconception of the nature of language. The debate is not really about whether other species than humans have languages, but about whether they have languages which they use as mediums of communication. Now the fact that humans have developed languages which can be used in communication is interesting, but it tells us nothing about the essential nature of language. The originality of the human species is precisely to have found this curious additional use for something other species also possess, as the originality of elephants is to have found that they can use their noses for the curious additional purpose of picking things up. In both cases, the result has been that something widely found in other species has undergone remarkable adaptation and development because of the new uses it has been put to. However, it would be as strange for humans to conclude that the essential purpose of language is communication as it would be for elephants to conclude the essential purpose of noses is for picking things up.” Ibid. pp. 173-4.

[10] Phillip Hesleton,  Gerald Gardner & the Cauldron of Inspiration (Milverton: Capall Bann, 2003) 111

[11] Steve Wilson,  Wicca: The Real History 2000 zee-list, quotes in Hesleton (ibid)

[12] Patrick  Benham, The Avalonians (Glastonbury: Gothic Image, 1993) 56.

[13] Ibid.,  53

[14] Ibid.,  6

[15] Ibid, 12.

[16] John Arthur Goodchild quoted in ibid., 19.

[17] Patrick  Benham, The Avalonians (Glastonbury: Gothic Image, 1993) 146.

[18] Ibid.,  158.

[19] The description ‘Manifestation of God’ is a peculiarly  term and may indicate Fortune was familiar with  terminology and writings.

[20] Dion Fortune, Aspects of Occultism (Wellingborough: Aquarian Press, 1978) 24

[21] Hesleton ibid 131

[22] Ibid.

[23] “A Wonderful Movement in the East: A Visit to Abdul Baha at Alexandria,” Christian Commonwealth 28 Dec. 1910, 231.

[24]Helen Hornby, ed.,  Lights of Guidance, (New Delhi: BPT, 1983) 424 Letter from Shoghi Effendi to the NSA of USA & Canada

[25] Hornby, Ibid., 421/2 Letter from Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer February 17th 1957.

[26] Honby, Ibid., 423 Letter from Shoghi Effendi to the NSA of India June 28th 1950.

[27] Hornby, Ibid., 159 Letter from Shoghi Effendi to the s of Vienna, June 24, 1947.

[28] Hornby, Ibid., 425 Letter from Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer April 14th 1934.

[29] Shoghi Effendi World Order (Chicago: BPT,1955)

[30] Philip Hainsworth,  “Bahá’í Story,” n.d. MS. National Bahá’í Archives, London.

[31] Philip Hainsworth, Looking Back in Wonder, (Skyeset: Stroud, 2004), 105.

[32] The Pagan Federation claim as many as 240,000 Pagans making Paganism the eighth largest and fastest growing religion in the UK.

Published with permission from the author Lil L.C. Osborn.

BIO: Who is  Lil L.C. Osborn?

I have a BA in Arabic and Islamic Studies and an MA in Women and Religion both from the University of Lancaster. My PhD was awarded by the University of London, School of Oriental & African Studies for a thesis examining the history of the Baha’i Faith in the British Isles.

I have also undertaken a Farmington Fellowship at the University of Oxford where I used my role as a teacher of Religious Education in a school for ASC learners to research links between Autism, Black Metal and Satanism.

My research interests are Islamic and post-Islamic magic, early twentieth-century European esoteric groups, in particular their links with the Middle East, Wicca & Paganism.

I am currently researching the link between feminism/suffrage and the Divine Feminine in the context of esoteric groups including the Baha’is in Britain.

I have homes in London and Somerset.


Part 2: The Bahá’í Faith and Wicca – A Comparison of Relevance in Two Emerging Religions, Part 2 – The Goddess and the Maiden:

Over Lil L.C. Osborn

Who is  Lil L.C. Osborn? I have a BA in Arabic and Islamic Studies and an MA in Women and Religion both from the University of Lancaster. My PhD was awarded by the University of London, School of Oriental & African Studies for a thesis examining the history of the Baha’i Faith in the British Isles. I have also undertaken a Farmington Fellowship at the University of Oxford where I used my role as a teacher of Religious Education in a school for ASC learners to research links between Autism, Black Metal and Satanism. My research interests are Islamic and post-Islamic magic, early twentieth-century European esoteric groups, in particular their links with the Middle East, Wicca & Paganism. I am currently researching the link between feminism/suffrage and the Divine Feminine in the context of esoteric groups including the Baha’is in Britain. I have homes in London and Somerset. See:
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