The endeavor now known as the Bahá'í Encyclopedia Project came into being in 1984. At that time persecution of the Bahá'ís in Iran was generating increased interest in the religion's history and tenets by public officials, scholars, and the media in the West.

Responding to the growing need for an accurate and comprehensive reference work on the Bahá’í Faith, the project was conceived at first as an eight- to ten-year-long effort to produce a Baha’i dictionary. By 1987 a long-range plan to produce a Baha’i Encyclopedia had emerged.

Determining the size of the Encyclopedia, deciding the range and content of topics to be covered, and compiling a list of prospective articles were enormous undertakings. The Encyclopedia was envisioned at various times as being as small as one volume and as large as eight. Once the overall architecture was determined, the next challenging task was obtaining high-quality articles, calling on the talents of authors from all over the world. Two decades ago, scholarly study of the Bahá’í Faith was clearly in its formative stages; indeed, even now, secondary literature is still relatively limited in its scope, quantity, and quality. Primary research was needed on many topics, complicating the task of finding authors able to engage in such research. Developing the Encyclopedia thus required much ground-breaking effort.

Gradually, it became clear that accomplishing such a complex task with minimal resources required persistence, flexibility, and far more time than originally estimated. The project has gone through several distinct phases. It was based in North America and the United Kingdom under two previous general editors, John Walbridge (1984–91) and Moojan Momen (1991–94). A sociology editor, Will C. van den Hoonaard, served in that capacity from 1984 to 1991. In 1996 the project’s office was relocated to Evanston, Illinois, with Gayle Morrison serving as its coordinating editor. Since then, the project has evolved through four distinct publishing plans and has adapted to changing technologies and priorities. The Encyclopedia Project—which has always been world-embracing in scope, drawing on the talents of authors, editors, and readers from many countries—has been, since its inception, an official activity of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States, without whose vision and support an undertaking of this magnitude could not have been attempted.