The Hands of the Cause of God were Baha’is appointed by Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha or Shoghi Effendi, as the “Chief Stewards of Baha’u’llah’s embryonic World Commonwealth.”1.
What is a chief steward? A steward is similar to a manager, or director, and so the ‘chief stewards’ of the Faith managed and directed the global activities of the Baha’i Faith. Shoghi Effendi clearly defined their work as “the propagation and preservation of the unity of the Faith of Baha’u’llah.”2.
Abdu’l-Baha also described the duties of the Hands of the Cause. He stated that they…
…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.3
Baha’u’llah appointed four Hands, four were posthumously named by the Master, and 42 were given this station by Shoghi Effendi. Little is known about the Hands from the early days of the Faith and the Guardian stated that little will be known about them until the history of the Cause in Iran and the near East is written and available – a time which the Universal House of Justice has said has yet to come. Furthermore, as the study of letters and archives are conducted, we may even learn about other Hands from that time period.
We will always be indebted to the Hands for their stewardship of the Faith, and perhaps particularly for the services rendered after the passing of Shoghi Effendi. Those Hands who were alive in November of 1957 masterfully guided the worldwide Baha’i community until 1963 when the first Universal House of Justice was elected. This period of Baha’i history leaves me in awe. Consider this: They were grief-stricken at the sudden and unexpected passing of Shoghi Effendi. They had no living Centre of the Covenant to turn to because the Universal House of Justice had yet to be elected. They were certain that there was no certainty of their incontrovertible Divine guidance — unlike the institutions of the Guardianship or the Universal House of Justice. With this in mind they decided that the safest course of action was to follow, without deviation, the guidance left to them by the beloved Guardian. Consider also that they ranged in age from 31 to 96. Many had never met one another. They did not all share a common language. One had met Baha’u’llah, several had been alive during the Master’s lifetime, and some had only recently become Baha’is. They varied greatly in professions – from television actors to housewives, writers to architects. The single characteristic that they shared: an unfailing love and unquestioned obedience to Shoghi Effendi.
After the passing of the beloved Guardian, twenty-five of the twenty-seven met as an institution in the Mansion of Bahji to deliberate and consult for a week about the future of the Faith (two were prevented by old age and ill health from joining them). From that historic conclave the Hands issued a message to the Baha’is of the world. It unanimously proclaimed that the Guardian had not left an heir and had not appointed another Guardian to succeed him. As delineated in Abdu’l-Baha’s Will and Testament, they appointed amongst themselves nine members who would serve in the Holy Land and act as Custodians to the Faith. The two absent members added their signatures to the letter. All the existing National Spiritual Assemblies from around the world responded, acknowledging their allegiance to the Custodians and the government authorities in Israel officially recognized their status.
The advancement of the Faith – and even our own meager spiritual struggles – is propelled by crisis and victory and this is evident in the six years that the Custodians and the Hands maintained the unity and integrity of the Faith. Despite the breaking of the Covenant of one of their members, they successfully guided the growth of the Faith by inspiring a grieving community to meet the challenges of the Ten Year Crusade. They nurtured our global Faith and fostered our administrative order so that the first Universal House of Justice could be successfully elected from among the Baha’is of the world. In its inaugural message at the World Congress in London, the Universal House of Justice stated:
…they share the victory with their beloved commander [Shoghi Effendi], he who raised them up and appointed them. They kept the ship on its course and brought it safe to port. The Universal House of Justice, with pride and love, recalls on this supreme occasion its profound admiration for the heroic work which they have accomplished. We do not wish to dwell on the appalling dangers which faced the infant Cause when it was suddenly deprived of our beloved Shoghi Effendi, but rather to acknowledge with all the love and gratitude of our hearts the reality of the sacrifice, the labor, the self-discipline, the superb stewardship of the Hands of the Cause of God. We can think of no more fitting words to express our tribute to these dearly loved and valiant souls than to recall the words of Baha’u’llah Himself: ‘Light and glory, greeting and praise be upon the Hands of His Cause, through whom the light of long-suffering hath shone forth, and the declaration of authority is proven of God, the powerful, the mighty, the independent; and through whom the sea of bestowal hath moved, and the breeze of the favor of God, the Lord of mankind, hath wafted.’4
With the election of the Universal House of Justice, the supreme governing body of the Baha’i Faith, the office of the Custodians ceased to exist. Its nine members were freed to continue to protect and promote the affairs of the Faith alongside their fellow Hands. The last living Hand of the Cause of God, Dr. Ali-Muhammad Varqa, passed away in 2007, and although it is not possible for any further Hands of the Cause of God to be appointed, their legacy will endure for centuries.
If you are interested in finding out more about the Hands of the Cause, I highly recommend this thorough article from the Baha’i Encyclopedia Project entitled Hands of the Cause, and the books entitled Lights of Fortitude and The Ministry of the Custodians.