Bahá'í scriptures define a Covenant regarding succession which is intended to keep the Bahá'ís unified. Claimants challenging the widely accepted successions of leadership are shunned by the majority group as Covenant-Breakers, though such claimants likewise regard the others in the same way. Other than on the matter of leadership and organization, there are few if any differences between the schismatic and mainstream Bahá'ís in matters of doctrine and practice.
A separate entry discusses the Bahá'í/Bábí split.
Bahá'u'lláh remained in the Akka-Haifa area under house arrest until his death in 1892. According to the terms of his Will, his eldest son `Abdu'l-Bahá was named the centre of authority; Mírzá Muhammad `Alí, the eldest son from Bahá'u'lláh's second marriage was assigned an inferior position.
Pursuant to his role as Centre of the Covenant, `Abdu'l-Bahá asserted absolute leadership. Soon Muhammad `Ali complained that `Abdu'l-Bahá was not sharing authority and started working against his elder brother. Most members of the families of Bahá'u'lláh's second and third wives supported Muhammad `Alí but there were very few outside of Haifa who followed him. Muhammad `Alí's supporters called themselves "Unitarian Bahá'ís". In Browne's "Materials" he translates Mirza Jawad's claims that the authoritities began investigating `Abdu'l-Bahá more strictly, because he was acting in an overly superior fashion. Sometime later it was said that Muhammad `Alí was plotting to have `Abdu'l-Bahá hanged for treason against the Ottoman authorities in 1918. According to Shoghi Effendi, `Abdu'l-Bahá was due to be hanged on Mount Carmel near Haifa, but upon hearing of his death warrant, Lord Curzon pressured the British Cabinet to quickly capture the Haifa region from the Ottomans, and thereby rescued `Abdu'l-Bahá.
When `Abdu'l-Bahá died, his will went into great detail about how Muhammad `Alí had been unfaithful to the Covenant, labelling him a Covenant-breaker, and appointing Shoghi Effendi as leader of the Faith instead, with the title of Guardian. Much of `Abdu'l-Bahá's will centred around Muhammad `Alí's apparently jealous nature and inability to remain submissive to `Abdu'l-Bahá, the designated leader of the religion. Here he excommunicated members of Bahá'u'lláh's second and third wives' families. Whole books within Bahá'í literature have been printed to refute the claims of Muhammad `Alí. (Baluzi, Taherzadeh, etc.) This represented what is often described as the most testing time for the Bahá'í Faith.
The schism caused by Muhammad `Alí effectively no longer exists. In the `Akká area, the followers of Muhammad `Alí have been reduced to at most six families who have no common organized religious activities.
At 24, Shoghi Effendi was particularly young when he assumed leadership of the religion in 1921, as provided for by `Abdu'l-Bahá in his Will and Testament. He had received a Western education at the Syrian Protestant College and later at Balliol College, Oxford.
Muhammad-`Alí took the opportunity to revive his claim to leadership of the Bahá'í community. He forcibly seized the keys of the Tomb of Bahá'u'lláh at the mansion of Bahjí, expelled its keeper, and demanded that he be recognized by the authorities as the legal custodian of that property. But the Palestine authorities, after investigations, instructed the British officer in `Akká to deliver the keys into the hands of the keeper loyal to Shoghi Effendi.
Some family members disapproved of his marriage to a Westerner, Mary Maxwell - daughter of one of the foremost disciples of `Abdu'l-Bahá, in 1937. They claimed that Shoghi Effendi introduced innovations beyond the Iranian roots of the Faith. This gradually resulted in his siblings and cousins disobeying his instructions and marrying into the families of Covenant-breakers, many of whom were expelled as Covenant-breakers themselves. However, these disagreements within Shoghi Effendi's family resulted in no attempts to create a schism around an alternative leader. At the time of his death in 1957, he was the only remaining male member of the family of Bahá'u'lláh who had not been expelled. Even his own parents had openly fought against him.
Another division occurred primarily within the American Bahá'í community, which increasingly consisted of non-Persians with an interest in alternative spiritual pursuits. Many had been strongly attracted to the personality of `Abdu'l-Bahá and the spiritual teachings of the Bahá'í Faith. Some regarded it as an ecumenical society to which all persons of goodwill — regardless of religion — might join. When Shoghi Effendi made clear his position that the Bahá'í Faith was an independent religion with its own distinct administration through local and national spiritual assemblies, a few felt that he had overstepped the bounds of his authority. Most prominent among them was a New York group including Mirza Ahmad Sohrab and Lewis and Julia Chanler, which founded the "New History Society," and it's youth section, the Caravan of East and West. Sohrab and the Chanlers refused to be overseen by the New York Spiritual Assembly, and were expelled by Shoghi Effendi as Covenant-breakers. They argued that the expulsion was meaningless because they believed the faith could not be institutionalized. The New History Society published several works by Sohrab and Chanler and others. The New History Society attracted fewer than a dozen Bahá'ís, however its membership swelled to several thousand for a time. It is now defunct. The Caravan House, aka Caravan Institute, later disassociated itself from the Bahá'í Faith, and now remains as an unrelated non-profit organization.
Shoghi Effendi's appointed Hands of the Cause unanimously voted it was impossible to legitimately recognize and assent to a successor. The Bahá'í community was in a situation not dealt with in the provisions of the Will and Testament of `Abdu'l-Bahá. Furthermore, the Universal House of Justice had not yet been elected, which represented the only Bahá'í institution authorized to adjudicate on matters not covered by the religion's three central figures.
To understand the transition following the death of Shoghi Effendi in 1957, an explanation of the roles of the Guardian, the Hands of the Cause, and the Universal House of Justice are useful.
Other than allusions in the writings of Bahá'u'lláh to the importance of the Aghsán, the role of the Guardian was not mentioned until the reading of the Will and Testament of `Abdu'l-Bahá. Shoghi Effendi later expressed to his wife and others that he had no foreknowledge of the existence of the Institution of Guardianship, least of all that he was appointed as Guardian.
`Abdu'l-Bahá warned the Bahá'ís to avoid the problems caused by his half-brother Muhammad `Alí. He stipulated the criteria and form for selecting future Guardians, which was to be clear and unambiguous. His Will required that the Guardian appoint his successor "in his own life-time ... that differences may not arise after his [the Guardian's] passing." (p. 12) The appointee was required to be either the first-born son of the Guardian, or one of the Aghsán (literally: Branches; male descendants of Bahá'u'lláh). Finally, `Abdu'l-Bahá left a responsibility to nine Hands of the Cause, elected from all of the Hands, who "whether unanimously or by a majority vote, must give their assent to the choice of the one whom the Guardian of the Cause of God hath chosen as his successor."(p. 12).
The Will also vested authority in the Guardian's appointed assistants, known as the Hands of the Cause, giving them the right to "cast out from the congregation of the people of Bahá" anyone they deem in opposition to the Guardian.(pp. 12 and 21) `Abdu'l-Bahá then adds: "Should any, within or without the company of the Hands of the Cause of God disobey and seek division, the wrath of God and His vengeance will be upon him, for he will have caused a breach in the true Faith of God." (p. 13)
On November 25, 1957, the Hands signed a unanimous proclamation, shortly after the passing of Shoghi Effendi, stating that he had died "without having appointed his successor"; that "it is now fallen upon us... to preserve the unity, the security and the development of the Bahá'í World Community and all its institutions"; and that they would elect from among themselves nine Hands who would "exercise ... all such functions, rights and powers in succession to the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith... as are necessary to serve the interests of the Bahá'í World Faith, and this until such time as the Universal House of Justice... may otherwise determine." This body of nine Hands became known as the Hands of the Cause in the Holy Land, sometimes referred to as the Custodians.
For their authority, they referred to the Will and Testament of `Abdul-Bahá which states that "the Hands of the Cause of God must elect from their own number nine persons that shall at all times be occupied in the important services in the work of the Guardian of the Cause of God. The Guardian had written that the Hands had executive authority in carrying out his directives.
That same day the Hands passed a unanimous resolution that clarified who would have authority over various executive areas. Among these were:
In the their deliberations following Shoghi Effendi's passing they determined that they were not in a position to appoint a successor, only to ratify one, so they advised the Bahá'í community that the Universal House of Justice would consider the matter after it was established per the goals of the Ten Year Crusade.
In deciding when and how the International Bahá'í Council would develop into the Universal House of Justice, the Hands agreed to carry out Shoghi Effendi's plans for moving it from the appointed council, to an officially recognized Bahá'í Court, to a duly elected body, and then to the elected Universal House of Justice. In November 1959, referring to the goal of becoming recognized as a non-Jewish religious court in Israel, they said: "this goal, due to the strong trend towards the secularization of Religious Courts in this part of the world, might not be achieved. The recognition as a religious court was never achieved, and the International Bahá'í Council was established in 1961 as an elected body, with all adult male and female Bahá'ís eligible for election. The Hands of the Cause made themselves ineligible for election to the council, or the Universal House of Justice.
Upon the election of the Universal House of Justice in 1963, the ending point of Shoghi Effendi's ten-year plan, the nine Hands acting as interim head of the Faith closed their office.
Charles Mason Remey was among the Hands who signed the unanimous proclamations in 1957, acknowledging that Shoghi Effendi had died without having appointed his successor. He was among the nine Custodians elected to serve in the Holy Land as interim head of the Faith.
On 8 April, 1960, Remey made a written announcement that he was the second Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith and explained his "status for life as commander in chief of Bahá’í affairs of the world" in this proclamation which he requested to be read in front of the annual US convention in Wilmette.
His claim was based on his having been appointed President of the first International Bahá'í Council by Shoghi Effendi in 1951. The appointed council represented the first international Bahá'í body. It was to gain recognition as a religious court, be transformed into an elected body, and further evolve into the Universal House of Justice, with the Guardian as its head. Remey believed that his appointment as the council's president meant that he was the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith.
The Hands of the Cause wrote regarding his reasoning, "If the President of the International Bahá'í Council is ipso facto the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, then the beloved Guardian, himself, Shoghi Effendi would have had to be the President of this first International Bahá'í Council.
Regarding the authority of the Hands of the Cause, Remey wrote in his letter to the convention that the Hands "have no authority vested in themselves... save under the direction of the living Guardian of the Faith. He further commanded the Bahá'ís to abandon plans for establishing the Universal House of Justice.
In his proclamation, Remey never addressed the requirement that Guardians should be male-descendants of Bahá'u'lláh, of whom Remey was not. His followers later referred to letters and public statements of `Abdu'l-Bahá calling him "my son" as evidence that he had been implicitly adopted. These claims were almost universally rejected by the body of the Bahá'ís.
In response, and after having made many prior efforts to convince Remey to withdraw his claim, the Custodians took action and sent a cablegram to the National Spiritual Assemblies. Two days later the Custodians sent Mason Remey a letter informing him of their unanimous decision to declare him a Covenant-breaker. They cited the Will and Testament of `Abdul-Bahá, the unanimous joint resolutions of November 25, 1957, and their authority in carrying out the work of the Guardian as their justification. Anyone who accepted Remey's claim to the Guardianship was also expelled.
Remey maintained his claim to Guardianship, and with a small group of followers went on to establish what came to be known as the Orthodox Bahá'ís Under the Hereditary Guardianship, which later broke into several other divisions based on succession disputes within the groups that followed Remey.
The Bahá'í institutions and believers around the world pledged their loyalty to the Hands of the Cause, who dedicated the next few years to completing Shoghi Effendi's Ten Year Crusade, culminating with the election of the Universal House of Justice in 1963. It was at this time the Custodians officially passed their authority as the head of the Faith to the Universal House of Justice, which soon announced that it could not appoint or legislate to make possible the appointment of a second Guardian to succeed Shoghi Effendi.
A short time later it elaborated on the situation in which the Guardian would die without being able to appoint a successor, saying that it was an obscure question not covered by Bahá'í scriptures, that no institution or individual at the time could have known the answer, and that it therefore had to be referred to the Universal House of Justice, whose election was confirmed by references in Shoghi Effendi's letters that after 1963 the Bahá'í world would be led by international plans under the direction of the Universal House of Justice.
The Universal House of Justice specifically refers to paragraph 42 of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas as evidence that Bahá'u'lláh anticipated that the line of Guardians was not guaranteed forever by providing for the disposition of the religion's endowments in the absence of the Aghsán. (See also Notes 66 and 67 of the The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, pp. 196-197.)
The Encyclopædia Iranica reports the following:
Some of his supporters, particularly Marangella, declared him to be senile in old age. He died at the age of 100 living many of his last years in Florence, Italy.
In 1964 the NSAUHG filed a lawsuit against the National Spiritual Assembly (NSA) of the Bahá'ís of the United States to receive the legal title to the Bahá'í House of Worship in Illinois, and all other property owned by the NSA. The NSA counter-sued, and in August 1966 Remey instructed the NSAUHG to withdraw from any action in the matter "regardless of the consequences." Later that year, Remey asked the NSAUHG to dissolve, as well as the second International Bahá'í Council that he had appointed with Joel Marangella as president, residing in France. Marangella, Donald Harvey, and Jacques Soghomonian previously served on the National Spiritual Assembly of France in 1961, and were declared Covenant-breakers when they accepted Mason Remey as the next Guardian.
Over the years following 1966 the followers of Mason Remey were not organized; with some of his followers concluding that Remey was suffering from dementia, until several of the individuals involved began forming their own groups based on different understandings of succession.
In 1962 Remey gave Marangella a sealed envelope, with instructions to open it when the time was right. In 1965 Mason Remey called for the second International Bahá'í Council, of which Marangella was president, to become active. Marangella then opened the sealed letter, which was a hand-written note by Mason appointing Marangella as his successor. Marangella looks upon that time as the time of his official appointment. Remey then changed his mind, deactivated his Second International Bahá'í Council in 1966, and in 1969 Marangella announced that he was the third Guardian. All of the members of the 1966 NSAUHG accepted Marangella's claim.
In 1970 Marangella appointed members to a "National Bureau of the Orthodox Bahá'í Faith in New York", which two years later was moved to New Mexico, and subsequently changed its name to "Mother Bahá'í Council of the United States" (1978) and "Provisional National Bahá'í Council" (2000), with all members appointed by Joel Marangella.
The Orthodox Bahá'í Community continues, but membership data is scarce. One source estimated them at no more than 100 members in 1988.. Memorandums from a 2007 court case state their membership in the United States totals approximately 40. Websites claiming to represent the Orthodox community indicate followers in the United States and India. Messages from Joel Marangella indicate that he resides in Perth, Australia.
Leland Jensen was one of the nine board members elected to the first NSAUHG in 1963. In 1964 he left the New Mexico group and moved to Missoula, Montana. In 1969 he was convicted of "a lewd and lascivious act" for sexually molesting a 15-year-old female patient, and served four years of a twenty year sentence in the Montana State Prison. It was in prison that Jensen converted several inmates to his ideas of being what he called the "Establisher" of the Bahá'í Faith, stemming from his belief that the Bahá'í administrative order became corrupted following the death of Shoghi Effendi, and that he was chosen by God to re-establish the administration. After being paroled in 1973, and before the death of Remey, Jensen formed a group called the Bahá'ís Under the Provisions of the Covenant (BUPC).
Since the 1970s, Jensen believed Remey's adopted son Joseph Pepe was the Guardian, an idea that Pepe rejected several times. In 1991 Jensen appointed followers to a second International Bahá'í Council (sIBC), intending that it would grow into an elected Universal House of Justice after a nuclear holocaust. Pepe died in 1994, after which Jensen began to hint that Neal Chase might be the Guardian. Jensen died in 1996.
A researcher noted that since 1980 BUPC membership has fluctuated but never exceeded 200 nationwide. In 1994 the membership list showed 66 members in Montana and less than 20 in other states. A Harvard student researcher noted a community of 30 members in the headquarters of Missoula, Montana in 2003, as well as the existence of BUPC adherents in Denver and Alaska.
The Orthodox Bahá'í Faith Under the Regency was founded by Reginald "Rex" King, who accepted Mason Remey's claim and was appointed in 1963 and 1964 to the NSAUHG.
After conflicts with several of Remey's followers, including Marangella, King decided that "neither Mason Remey nor Joel Marangella had in truth ever been guardians... because of the lack of lineal descendancy". King claimed that what Remey had actually been was "a regent Guardian" for the office of Guardian which was in fact in occultation. King further asserted that he himself "was in actuality the Second Regent...." King's argument was that Remey was senile in old age, and didn't know what he was doing. Following his death in 1977, King left leadership of the community to a Council of Regents, who reorganized as the Tarbiyat Bahá'í Community.
The Regency Bahá'ís do not claim the authority to declare Covenant-breakers, so they try to freely associate with other Bahá'ís. The Council of Regents, which consists mostly of King's family, tries to "maintain the integrity of the Cause of Bahá'u'lláh until such time as the Second Guardian makes himself known, and claims his rightful office. They also still maintain that "the Faith will never be permanently split into factions or denominations as has happened in all previous religions"; with an emphasis on permanently. Membership figures are not published for the Tarbiyat Bahá'í Community. They appear to be restricted to a single group in Las Vegas, New Mexico.
However, the Bahá'í Writings do in fact envision that challenges to the authority of its successorship will occur but indicate that any divisions would not be permanent nor affect the "vast body of adherents". The fact that there is even a process for expelling Covenant-breakers is seen as further evidence for the eventuality of some challenges to its leadership occurring.
Bahá'ís point out that, while groups or individuals have left the religion, or been told to leave, these have not been as successful attracting followers, nor had as widespread an effect, as the mainstream Bahá'í community. Indeed, they assert, the vast majority of such schismatic groups are already extinct and those remaining have very few followers, especially when contrasted with the Bahá'í Faith's population, now numbering about five million.
Very few statistics of the smaller groups are available, and the Encyclopædia Iranica reports that the smaller groups that have broken away from the main body have not attracted a sizeable following. Adherents.com reports that the Bahá'í Faith is "almost entirely contained within one very organized, hierarchical denomination", led by the Universal House of Justice in Haifa.
On the other hand, one writer points out that "it would be surprising if the movement succeeded in resisting tendencies towards fission, heterodoxy and popularization if it moves much beyond its present sectarian dimensions.