It’s difficult to imagine how a religion can exist and propagate with no priesthood. However, there is no priesthood of any kind in the Baha’i Faith. In fact, Baha’u’llah said, “power hath been taken from every high place….” He abrogated the priesthood of all religions. He removed every pretense of any priesthood having authority over the hearts of men. He made it obligatory for every individual to investigate truth, rather than blindly following into the religion of their fathers. Baha’u’llah calls each person to individually know God, and do His Will.
Although there is no priesthood in the Baha’i Faith, and no individual has authority over another; institutions and administrative bodies do exist, however, that help to oversee and administer the work and the advancement of the Faith.
Every year, for example, Local Baha’i Communities vote prayerfully to elect nine adult members of their individual community to serve on Local Spiritual Assemblies; wherein each Assembly acts as administrators of their own local matters. Also every year the Baha’i communities of a nation elect delegates to convene at a National Convention and vote prayerful to elect nine adult members to serve on the National Spiritual Assembly of their community. A single National Spiritual Assembly is prayerfully elected for each nation or region, who then serve to administrate matters related to their individual nations. At the same time, every five years all of the National Spiritual Assemblies of the world convene to vote prayerful to elect a single governing body for the entire earth called the Universal House of Justice. All of these elections take place without a trace of electioneering and are by secret ballot. In each case, the nine individuals who receive the highest number of votes are elected to serve. No one is paid, and no single person has authority over others because there is no priesthood or priestly class.
In addition to these administrative bodies of the Baha’i Faith, there are institutions to which members have been appointed. These appointments were made by the Bab, by Baha’u’llah, by Abdu’l-Baha, and by Shoghi Effendi, each in his time. The individuals who have been appointed have been known by various designations. The Bab called His apostles “Letters of the Living;” Baha’u’llah designated four “Hands of the Cause of God;” Abdu’l-Baha also named four “Hands;” and Shoghi Effendi designated 42 Hands of the Cause, ten of which were named posthumously after they passed away. He also designated 254 “Knights of Baha’u’llah.”
In 1953 Shoghi Effendi launched the Ten Year World Crusade, during which he asked Baha’is to arise to serve the cause of Baha’u’llah in order to establish it across the earth. The individuals designated Knights of Baha’u’llah by Shoghi Effendi were those who were the first to open a territory or nation to the teachings of Baha’u’llah. They were the first to uproot themselves and to settle in a country to upraise the call of Baha’u’llah. The names of these individuals will not be forgotten. Their names are inscribed on a scroll that is buried at the entrance of the mausoleum of Baha’u’llah.
The Institution of the Hands of the Cause of God is comprised of fifty individuals – men and women – who were recognized for their extraordinary dedication and service to the Faith. Although none of the “Hands” are still living, the purpose of the Hands was to protect and propagate the nascent Baha’i Faith. To illustrate how self-effacing the Hands were, they asked people not to make written, audio, or visual recordings of their speeches because they did not want what they said to be confused with the authority of the Baha’i Faith. Instead, they always encouraged the Baha’is to turn to the Sacred Text and, also, to the elected institutions of the Faith for guidance and protection. Today, Continental Counselors are appointed to do the work done previously by the Hands of the Cause; however, Continental Counselors are appointed for a renewable five year term, while Hands of the Cause of God were designated for life.
In His Will and Testament, Abdu’l-Baha wrote many passages referring to the Hands of the Cause of God. Here He stated the overarching divine purpose of their work:
“The obligations of the Hands of the Cause of God are to diffuse the Divine Fragrances, to edify the souls of men, to promote learning, to improve the character of all men and to be, at all times and under all conditions, sanctified and detached from earthly things. They must manifest the fear of God by their conduct, their manners, their deeds and their words. This body of the Hands of the Cause of God is under the direction of the Guardian of the Cause of God. He must continually urge them to strive and endeavour to the utmost of their ability to diffuse the sweet savours of God, and to guide all the peoples of the world, for it is the light of Divine Guidance that causeth all the universe to be illumined. To disregard, though it be for a moment, this absolute command which is binding upon everyone, is in no wise permitted, that the surface of the earth may become heavenly, that contention and conflict amidst peoples, kindreds, nations and governments may disappear, that all the dwellers on earth may become one people and one race, that the world may become even as one home.”
As you can see from the exalted nature of that passage, Abdu’l-Baha is asking the men and women who are named Hands of the Cause of God to uplift all of humanity and make this earth into a heavenly world. In a sense, the Faith of Baha’u’llah is not made up of men or women, but of angels who replace their own wills with the Will of God. These angels don’t do this because they are good, but because their minds, hearts, and souls have heard the call of God and they, being practical, are compelled to surrender themselves to His Manifestation.
These segments from one of many hundreds of prayers that Baha’u’llah wrote tells why Baha’is are devoted to Him, whether or not they are Hands of the Cause of God, Knights of Baha’u’llah, or simply devout members of an ever-increasing priceless host of dedicated, ordinary people:
“He is the King, the All-Knowing, the Wise! Lo, the Nightingale of Paradise singeth upon the twigs of the Tree of Eternity, with holy and sweet melodies, proclaiming to the sincere ones the glad tidings of the nearness of God, calling the believers in the Divine Unity to the court of the Presence of the Generous One, informing the severed ones of the message which hath been revealed by God, the King, the Glorious, the Peerless, guiding the lovers to the seat of sanctity and to this resplendent Beauty.
“Verily this is that Most Great Beauty, foretold in the Books of the Messengers, through Whom truth shall be distinguished from error and the wisdom of every command shall be tested. Verily He is the Tree of Life that bringeth forth the fruits of God, the Exalted, the Powerful, the Great.”
Elsewhere in this same prayer, Baha’u’llah wrote:
“O people, if ye deny these verses, by what proof have ye believed in God? Produce it, O assemblage of false ones.
“Nay, by the One in Whose hand is my soul, they are not, and never shall be able to do this, even should they combine to assist one another.”
He reminds the supplicant:
“… if thou art overtaken by affliction in My path, or degradation for My sake, be not thou troubled thereby.
“Rely upon God, thy God and the Lord of thy fathers. For the people are wandering in the paths of delusion, bereft of discernment to see God with their own eyes, or hear His Melody with their own ears. Thus have We found them, as thou also dost witness.
“Thus have their superstitions become veils between them and their own hearts and kept them from the path of God, the Exalted, the Great.
“Be thou assured in thyself that verily, he who turns away from this Beauty hath also turned away from the Messengers of the past and showeth pride towards God from all eternity to all eternity.”