Spiritual conquerors of this wide, brown land
Next month Australia will begin celebrations marking the centenary of Clara and Hyde Dunn's arrival in Australia to promote the Cause of Bahá’u'lláh. Graham Hassall tells the story of why they pioneered there and how they set about spreading the Faith across the country.
Clara and Hyde Dunn were born on the other side of the world in London (Hyde in 1855 and Clara in 1869) and they each migrated to North America long before meeting each other.
Hyde first encountered the Bahá'í Teachings in in 1905, and was instructed by such outstanding early American Bahá'ís as Thornton Chase, Lua Getsinger and Ella Cooper. In 1907 he introduced the Teachings to Clara Davis during a teaching trip to Walla Walla, Washington.
Both Clara and Hyde were privileged to meet 'Abdu'l-Bahá when He visited San Francisco in October 1912.
They married in 1917 and after reading 'Abdu'l-Bahá's Tablets of the Divine Plan in 1919, made an instantaneous decision to respond by migrating to Australia.
Clara later recounted that she looked up from the page she was reading aloud to Hyde and said: "Let us go where Abdu'l-Bahá wished to go." Then she added: "We are almost in poverty." Hyde replied unhesitatingly: "Yes, we will go." (Conversation quoted in Agnes Alexander, Personal Recollections of a Bahá'í Life in the Hawaiian Islands: Forty Years of the Bahá'í Cause in Hawaii, 1902-1942, rev. ed)
In The Advent of Divine Justice, a long letter addressed to the North American Bahá’ís in 1939, Shoghi Effendi included the Dunns among a small band of Bahá'ís who had won "eternal distinction" by being the first to enter a number of "highly important and widely scattered centres and territories". (Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice)
When they arrived in Sydney on April 10, 1920, Hyde was aged 65 and Clara 52. Notwithstanding their being of "middle age", having meagre financial means and enduring fragile health, the Dunns laboured successfully across many decades to establish in both Australia and New Zealand firm pillars of the world-wide Bahá'í community.
Establishing a livelihood in a new country and at such an advanced age was not easy. Clara took secretarial work until Hyde obtained a position as a travelling salesman. By July 1923 Hyde had visited 225 towns in New South Wales in the first year and more than 700 towns in all parts of the country in the subsequent 10 years. This occupation provided a of sustenance and enabled the Dunns to share the Bahá'í Teachings in every major city and town in Australia.
Typically, the Dunns rented an apartment in the State capital and Hyde visited country towns by rail during the week while Clara remained in the city making friends, involving herself in charitable activities and inviting people to weekend meetings at which Hyde would speak.
'Key to the Dunns' success was their fidelity to the Covenant, manifest in their love for 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi and intense desire to respond immediately to the needs of the time.'
Additional talks were given at the invitation of religious or philosophical groups or as planned and advertised by Hyde Dunn himself.
By the time Hyde passed away in Sydney in 1941 the Bahá'í Teachings had been taken to every State; Local Spiritual Assemblies had been established in Auckland, Sydney and Adelaide; the National Spiritual Assembly had been established in 1934 and the Yerrinbool Bahá’í School had been inaugurated in 1938.
Other Bahá'í groups were active in Melbourne, Hobart and Perth. In God Passes By, Shoghi Effendi's survey of the first century of the Bahá’í Era, he refers to Hyde Dunn as "great-hearted and heroic".
Shoghi Effendi named both Clara and Hyde Hands of the Cause of God, Hyde posthumously, in 1951 and Clara in 1952.
Before her passing in 1960 Clara witnessed the opening of the National Hazírat'l-Quds in Sydney in 1944 and attended an Intercontinental Conference in New Delhi in October 1952 that marked the start of the Ten Year World Crusade.
In November 1957 she attended the Convocation of Hands of the Cause that met following the passing of Shoghi Effendi and in March 1958, during the Australian Intercontinental Conference, placed "plaster from the Castle of Máh-Kú" in the foundation of the Australian Bahá'í House of Worship as had been requested by the late Guardian.
Into her seventh and eighth decades, Clara Dunn continued travel throughout the Australian States as well as occasionally to New Zealand to assist local Bahá'í communities in their teaching activities.
Key to the Dunns' success was their fidelity to the Covenant, manifest in their love for 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi and intense desire to respond immediately to the needs of the time.
This reliance on the Covenant cultivated in the Dunns a sense of confidence that their work would be successful. This confidence was reinforced through careful planning, intense effort, teamwork and utter humility.
On learning passing, Shoghi Effendi wrote to Clara: of Hyde Dunn's
"With feelings of overwhelming sorrow I learned of the loss of that great-hearted, that high-minded, that exemplary disciple of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Hyde Dunn, but I rejoice at his elevation to so exalted a seat among the immortals in the Abhá Kingdom & his reunion with a Master whom he served so lovingly & valiantly, so effectively & so long. He, the spiritual conqueror of the continent of Australasia, will, by his spirit, his example & accomplishments, continue to inspire the rising generation in that far-off continent & indeed throughout the Bahá'í World. The memory of his deeds will shed imperishable lustre on the annals of the first century of the Bahá'í era." (Messages to the Antipodes)