When Shoghi Effendi died in 1957, he died without explicitly appointing a successor Guardian. He had no children, and during his lifetime all remaining male descendants of Bahá’u’lláh had been excommunicated as Covenant-breakers. He left no will. Shoghi Effendi’s appointed Hands of the Cause unanimously voted it was impossible to legitimately recognize and assent to a successor. The Bahá’í community was in a situation not dealt with explicitly in the provisions of the Will and Testament of `Abdu’l-Bahá. Furthermore, the Universal House of Justice had not yet been elected, which represented the only Bahá’í institution authorized to adjudicate on matters not covered by the religion’s three central figures. To understand the transition following the death of Shoghi Effendi in 1957, an explanation of the roles of the Guardian, the Hands of the Cause, and the Universal House of Justice is useful.
Mason Remey and his successors asserted that a living Guardian is essential for the Bahá’í community, and that the Bahá’í writings required it. The basis of these claims were almost universally rejected by the body of the Bahá’ís, for whom the restoration of scripturally sanctioned leadership of the Universal House of Justice proved more attractive than the dubious claims of Mason Remey.
The House commented that its own authority was not dependent on the presence of a Guardian, and that its legislative functioning was unaffected by the absence of a Guardian. It stated that in its legislation it would be able to turn to the mass of interpretation left by Shoghi Effendi. The Universal House of Justice addressed this issue further early after its election clarifying that “there is nowhere any promise or guarantee that the line of Guardians would endure forever; on the contrary there are clear indications that the line could be broken.
Charles Mason Remey was among the Hands who signed the unanimous proclamations in 1957, acknowledging that Shoghi Effendi had died without having appointed his successor. He was also among the nine Custodians initially elected to serve in the Holy Land as interim head of the religion.
On 8 April, 1960, Remey made a written announcement that he was the second Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith and explained his “status for life as commander in chief of Bahá’í affairs of the world” in this proclamation which he requested to be read in front of the annual US convention in Wilmette.
He based his claim on his having been appointed President of the first International Bahá’í Council by Shoghi Effendi in 1951. The appointed council represented the first international Bahá’í body. Remey believed that his appointment as the council’s president meant that he was the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith.
Regarding the authority of the Hands of the Cause, Remey wrote in his letter that the Hands “have no authority vested in themselves… save under the direction of the living Guardian of the Faith.” He further commanded the Bahá’ís to abandon plans for establishing the Universal House of Justice.
Remey never addressed the requirement that Guardians should be male-descendants of Bahá’u’lláh, of whom Remey was not. His followers later referred to letters and public statements of `Abdu’l-Bahá calling him “my son” as evidence that he had been implicitly adopted but these claims were almost universally rejected by the body of the Bahá’ís.
In response, and after having made many prior efforts to convince Remey to withdraw his claim, the Custodians took action and sent a cablegram to the National Spiritual Assemblies on 26 July, 1960. Two days later the Custodians sent Mason Remey a letter informing him of their unanimous decision to declare him a Covenant-breaker. They cited the Will and Testament of `Abdul-Bahá, the unanimous joint resolutions of November 25, 1957, and their authority in carrying out the work of the Guardian as their justification. Anyone who accepted Remey’s claim to the Guardianship was also expelled.
Remey maintained his claim to Guardianship, and with a small group of followers went on to establish what came to be known as the Orthodox Bahá’ís Under the Hereditary Guardianship, which later broke into several other divisions based on succession disputes within the groups that followed Remey
Other than allusions in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh to the importance of the Aghsán, the role of the Guardian was not mentioned until the reading of the Will and Testament of `Abdu’l-Bahá. Shoghi Effendi later expressed to his wife and others that he had no foreknowledge of the existence of the Institution of Guardianship, least of all that he was appointed as Guardian.
`Abdu’l-Bahá warned the Bahá’ís to avoid the problems caused by his half-brother Muhammad `Alí. He stipulated the criteria and form for selecting future Guardians, which was to be clear and unambiguous. His will required that the Guardian appoint his successor “in his own life-time … that differences may not arise after his [the Guardian’s] passing.” The appointee was required to be either the first-born son of the Guardian, or one of the Aghsán (literally: Branches; male descendants of Bahá’u’lláh). Finally, `Abdu’l-Bahá left a responsibility to nine Hands of the Cause, elected from all of the Hands, who “whether unanimously or by a majority vote, must give their assent to the choice of the one whom the Guardian of the Cause of God hath chosen as his successor.”
The will also vested authority in the Guardian’s appointed assistants, known as the Hands of the Cause, giving them the right to “cast out from the congregation of the people of Bahá” anyone they deem in opposition to the Guardian.
The Bahá’í Faith has had challenges to leadership at the death of every head of the religion. The vast majority of Bahá’ís have followed a line of authority from Bahá’u’lláh to `Abdu’l-Bahá to Shoghi Effendi to the Custodians to the Universal House of Justice. Sects diverging from this line of leadership have had relatively little success and have failed to attract a sizeable following. In this sense, there is only one major branch of the Bahá’í Faith, represented by at least 5 million adherents, whereas the groups that have broken away have either become extinct with time, or have remained in very small numbers. Globally the Bahá’í community has maintained its unity.
Bahá’í scriptures define a Covenant regarding succession which is intended to keep the Bahá’ís unified. Claimants challenging the widely accepted successions of leadership are shunned by the majority group as Covenant-Breakers, though such claimants likewise regard the others in the same way. Other than on the matter of leadership and organization, there are few if any differences between the schismatic and mainstream Bahá’ís in matters of doctrine and practice.