Every single one of the world’s seven (soon to be eight) Baha’i Houses of Worship is unique – unique in history, in design and in surroundings. But the one thing they all share in common is that they are The Dawning Places of the Mention of God.
I have always wanted to visit the Wilmette Temple. I don’t think photos can do justice to its utmost majesty, its intricate ornamentation, and the feeling of awe one must feel when standing in its presence.
American author Bruce Whitmore’s work The Dawning Place explores the very wonders of this House of Worship, providing a chronological account of events from before the Temple’s construction through to the present day. We spoke to Bruce to find out about him and his book, which is now in its second edition.
Baha’i Blog: Thanks for agreeing to talk to us Bruce. Could you please start by telling us a little bit about yourself?
This is a special year for my family as we are celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of my grandmother becoming a Baha’i. She was born in Norway in the 1880s but moved with her family to the United States when still a teenager. Grandmother was a professional singer before she married, even performing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Of her four children, it was my mother who inherited her voice, singing at numerous Baha’i events even as a teenager in the 1920s.
My father was from one of the richest Mormon families in Utah. He relocated to California in the late 1910s to oversee family business interests. He embraced the Faith while living in Los Angeles and was immediately disowned by his family. He literally threw away a fortune for the bounty of becoming a follower of Baha’u’llah.
My biological mother, a friend of my parents, was unable to keep me and they adopted me at birth in 1944. I grew up in Pasadena, California, where my mother was that Baha’i community’s chairperson for as long as I can remember, and my grandmother was the secretary—definitely a family affair. I had many interesting experiences as a Baha’i child, such as the time my boyish pranks singlehandedly got the area Bahá’ís evicted from the hall where they had held their annual convention for several years.
My father passed away unexpectedly when I was nine. My mother remarried several years later and, in 1972, my avid-gardener stepdad was asked by the NSA to become the grounds manager at the Temple. The following year Patricia, my wife of three years who at the time was eight months pregnant with our second child, and I moved our family to Wilmette at the request of the NSA. We remained there for thirteen years and most of that time I worked at the House of Worship. When we left in 1986 we moved to the Georgia coast where I taught computers at a local college for over two decades. In addition to our two children, we have seven grandchildren and four great grandchildren.
Baha’i Blog: What inspired you to first write The Dawning Place?
In 1974 the largest gathering of Baha’is in the United States to that time was held in St. Louis. I was a member of the team that planned this gathering for over 10,000 people. Early on we decided to also encourage Baha’is to come to Wilmette before or after the conference. I undertook preparing a brochure which, in addition to listing general visitor information in Wilmette, contained some short stories about the Temple.
The history I found in our office files didn’t jive with what I remembered learning as a kid. As this country’s Baha’i National Archives is also located in the Temple, I undertook some basic research to get the stories straight. Charlotte Linfoot, then the NSA’s Assistant Secretary, encouraged me to write more. This came as a shock as I loathed history in school. I became determined that anything I wrote would be more than a mundane listing of dates.
I prepared seven articles for Baha’i News during the next few years. These formed the basis of not only The Dawning Place but the book I am now working on—the life of Albert Windust, founder of Star of the West Magazine, and the development of Baha’i Publishing in the west.
Among those who were invaluable to my research efforts was Continental Counsellor Edna True. Our families were related by marriage of one of my cousins to her nephew, and my family spent many wonderful hours in Edna’s home while in Wilmette. The Temple would never have been built were it not for Edna’s mother, Hand of the Cause of God Corinne True. Edna gave me full access to Corinne’s papers which had been stored for many years in numerous filing cabinets and boxes in her attic. This and the National Archives were my most important sources of accurate information on the Temple’s history.
Baha’i Blog: What does the book cover? How is it structured?
The book is arranged chronologically. The original edition begins with the first mention of the Faith in the west in 1893 and continues through the 1903 decision to build a Temple, the story of the creation of a design and its selection in 1920, and the process of construction and ornamentation which spanned thirty-two years.
Baha’i Blog: The Dawning Place is now in its second edition. What made you decide to update the book and how exactly has it been updated?
The new edition is approximately 50 per cent longer than the original. Many new stories have been added to the original chapters, but the primary difference is that the second edition covers an additional sixty years from the dedication in 1953 to the present day. It is also in a larger size and format which gives it a richer, more polished feeling. It contains some eighty black and white historic pictures as well as an eight-page folio of colored photographs of the Temple today.
There were many stories from my personal experiences at the Temple that I wanted to include, such as what happened when eighty retired and hostile nuns came on a tour, or the visit of the first leader of a sovereign nation, or the listing of the Temple in the National Register of Historic Places. There were other stories that had become lost to time, such as when the internationally famous contralto, Marian Anderson, planted a rose bush named in her honor in the Temple gardens or when Eastern Airlines aired a nationwide ad that featured the Temple. The new edition also explores the tremendous effort to rescue the Temple from decades of deterioration resulting from forces of nature that could have eventually caused the building to collapse.
Further, the book now looks beyond our shores, recounting several major related events such as the passing of the Guardian and the election of the first Universal House of Justice. Appendices have been doubled. One new inclusion is the text of a talk by Hand of the Cause of God Horace Holley on the purpose of worship which every believer should read.
Unfortunately, I could not include everything I wanted lest the book become too long and too expensive. So, I have just launched a website, thedawningplace.com, which includes many unpublished photos of and stories about the Temple.
Baha’i Blog: What did you want your readers to draw from the work?
An appreciation of their western Baha’i heritage. A few years before the book I developed a course on several early believers in America titled “On Whose Shoulders We Stand.” I presented the course at numerous Baha’i schools and subsequently used many of its stories in the book. Knowing that these early believers, facing far greater challenges than we must individually confront today, still achieved stunning victories for the Faith should be a source of great motivation for all of us.
Baha’i Blog: In your opinion, what is the most awe-inspiring thing about the Wilmette Temple? What makes it unique?
Certainly ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s laying of the dedication stone. Also that both the Master and the Guardian used the erection of the Temple as a primary tool in the formation of the Administrative Order, teaching the American Baha’is how to work together through the numerous project phases and seemingly never-ending problems.
The tremendous publicity the Temple repeatedly generated also is high on the list. When the design was selected in 1920, for example, stories appeared in newspapers worldwide. In my files are original clippings of several articles including one that appeared in Hiroshima, Japan.
Shoghi Effendi lavished thousands of words on the significance of the building. Perhaps most telling of his view of the Temple can be found in a list he compiled of the forty-nine most historically important events in the first century of the Faith. Among those events are the declarations of the Báb and Baha’u’llah, the Conference of Badasht, the death of the Purest Branch, the Ascension of Baha’u’llah, and the internment of the Báb on Mt. Carmel. Five events directly involved the Temple.
Baha’i Blog: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us about your fascinating life and your work, Bruce. We look forward to seeing more from you in the future!
The Dawning Place is available from your local Baha’i distributor, or here on Amazon.com.