Australian Baha’is in the 1920s were keen to form governing bodies to manage the affairs of the Baha’i Faith in their locality. The Baha’i Faith has no clergy, instead each year nine adults are elected by the Baha’is residing in the locality to form an Assembly. This Assembly looks after the affairs of the Baha’i Faith. All decisions are made through a consensus-based decision-making process, in which all ideas offered belong to the group for consideration as part of a collective process of seeking truth.
Local Spiritual Assemblies were formed in a number of localities in the 1920s. The first Baha’i Spiritual Assembly in Australia was formed in Melbourne in December 1923, followed by Perth in July 1924 and Adelaide in December 1924. The Spiritual Assembly of Sydney was formed in 1925. The Spiritual Assembly in Brisbane was not formed until 1949.
The early Baha’i Assemblies or groups held public meetings, printed newsletters, presented the Baha’i message to public officials, and consulted on the administrative affairs of a slowly expanding community.
National Spiritual Assembly
In 1934, the Australasian Baha’i community held its first national convention where it formed its first national governing body, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Australia and New Zealand. It was among the first eight Baha’i National Assemblies formed anywhere in the world.
The convention took place at the Baha’i Room at 114 Hunter Street, Sydney. There were three delegates each from Adelaide, Sydney and Auckland. The Baha’is elected to National Assembly in 1934 were Percy Almond, Ethel Blundell, Hilda Brooks, Robert Brown, Hyde Dunn, Silver Jackman, Charlotte Moffitt, Margaret Stevenson and Oswald Whitaker.
One of the features of the Baha’i Faith is that women are regarded as equal to men and eligible for election to its local and national governing bodies. In an era when mainstream religious institutions in Australia were led by men, it was notable that the Baha’is had voted for five women at its first National Spiritual Assembly election.
Adelaide-based Hilda Brooks served as the National Secretary for the first ten years. Due to distance and the cost of travel, the members met in person only once a year, consulting between meetings by correspondence. This made the Secretary’s role an arduous one. A sense of the camaraderie that existed between the members of the National Assembly is captured in Hilda Brooks’ account of a meeting held in Melbourne in 1938, following a mix-up that made the intended meeting room unavailable:
We returned to the Victoria Palace where we were lodging and after consultation decided to hold our meeting in my bedroom. It was a small room with only one chair in it. Miss Blundell sat on the chair. Mr Brown sat on the arm of the chair, Mr Whitaker had a rug and cushion on the floor, Dr Bolton sat on the waste paper basket and Mrs Jackman and I sat on the bed. We soon forgot our surroundings in the joy of our work…
Hilda Brooks, 1938
Travel was impossible for much of the Second World War, causing meetings and national conventions to be cancelled. Most years the annual election of the National Assembly was conducted by postal ballot, other than in 1937 and 1944, when national conventions could be held.