- No Jim Crow Church: The Origins of South Carolina’s Bahá’í Community by Louis Venters
Louis Venters seeks to place the early growth of the Bahá’í Faith in South Carolina in the context of that state’s Jim Crow regime and ensuing civil rights movement. Venters, himself a member of the Bahá’í Faith, describes the growth of this unique movement in his home state in detail, leaning on extensive research in Bahá’í archives and secular sources to describe a tiny religious movement’s struggle to be true to its commitment to both racial and gender equality in a region unfriendly to such notions. Because of the unmanageability of handling the faith’s entire South Carolina history in a single volume, Venters ends his story with the movement poised for growth in 1968.
Venters situates his narrative with other contemporary scholarship that has shown that religion in the post–Civil War South was integral to racial conflict in the region. With that in mind, the author tells a story of a religious movement that sought to spread into the Deep South from Washington, D.C., an early center of Bahá’í activity, only to find that racial attitudes in South Carolina and surrounding states put extraordinary pressure on Bahá’ís to modify their commitment to the oneness of humanity. Black converts faced the possibility of outright persecution, while white believers faced both internal and external pressures. Scrutinized by neighbors and law enforcement, Bahá’ís sometimes disagreed among themselves about the extent to which teaching and devotional activities should be racially integrated. In the end, however, the movement’s South Carolina branches retained and even intensified their commitment to racial egalitarianism because of their firm commitment to the authority of the faith’s leaders, of its guiding strategy, and of interpretations of the faith from a center in Haifa, in modern-day Israel.
Venters notes that he hopes that his story will bring new attention to the story of South Carolina’s civil rights movement, and he provides rich detail about the conflicted setting in which the early spread of the Bahá’í Faith took place. Although he wants to offer his subjects as playing important roles in the civil rights struggle, the connection between the mainstream activism of groups such as the NAACP and the Progressive Democratic Party and the [End Page 217] quiet, patient community building of the Bahá’ís is often unclear before the book’s final chapter, especially since the Bahá’í Faith prohibits both partisan political activity and civil disobedience.
Students of South Carolina history, of the history of the civil rights movement, and of the Bahá’í Faith will find this book interesting, as it is filled with local color and detailed narrative. At the same time, because the book does not hold itself out as an introduction to the Bahá’í Faith, readers unfamiliar with the movement may need to consult other secondary work for details about this young religion. Additionally, scholars reading from the perspective of religious studies rather than history will find that the author deals with the Bahá’í Faith on terms that are dictated by the faith itself rather than by any particular theoretical position; Venters explicitly declares that the Bahá’í Faith “defies the most common scholarly categories of American religious bodies” (p. 4). As a result, Venters brings little research on either sectarian religion or on new religious movements to bear on his analysis. It is to be hoped that the author may bring some of these tools to a second volume on his subjects, tracing the growth of the Bahá’í Faith in South Carolina from 1968 to the present.