September 4, 2010

Thornton Chase (1847–1912) – A Disciple of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, designated by the Guardian as “the first to embrace the Cause of Bahá'u'lláh in the Western world …”

“The stout-hearted Thornton Chase, surnamed Thabit (Steadfast) by 'Abdu'l-Bahá and designated by Him ‘the first American believer,’ who became a convert to the Faith in 1894”, along with” the immortal Louisa A. Moore, the mother teacher of the West, surnamed Liva (Banner) by 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Dr. Edward Getsinger, to whom she was later married, Howard MacNutt, Arthur P. Dodge, Isabella D. Brittingham, Lillian F. Kappes, Paul K. Dealy, Chester I. Thacher and Helen S. Goodall …will ever remain associated with the first stirrings of the Faith of Bahá'u'lláh in the North American continent.” These souls “stand out as the most prominent among those who, in those early years, awakened to the call of the New Day, and consecrated their lives to the service of the newly proclaimed Covenant.” (Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 257)

Thornton Chase became a Baha’i in Chicago in 1894 through a colleague friend by the name of William F. James --according to his life-long friend Carl Scheffler. Thornton’s friend had apparently met a Baha’i earlier by the name Ibrahim Kheiralla who had recently come to America from Beirut and had settled in Chicago. Thornton was reportedly writing a poem about God when his friend entered his office and intrigued by what he was doing told him of a man who claimed that God recently "walked upon the earth." The person who made such a claim, Thornton was told, was Ibrahim Kheiralla. Ibrahim Keiralla had further indicated to Thornton’s friend that Baha’u’llah was the new Messenger of God and that His coming had fulfilled all biblical prophecies. Thornton became very interested to meet Ibrahim Kheiralla and subsequently joined a small group of Chicagoans to study the Bahá’í Faith with Kheiralla. The class was apparently organized on June 5th, 1894.

By 1895 Thornton had completed the class and had become a Bahá’í. It is reported that at least three other Americans completed the class and accepted the new religion before Thornton Chase, but subsequently lost interest in the Bahá’í Faith. Thus, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá recognized Thornton Chase as "the first American believer," and Shoghi Effendi later described him as "indeed the first to embrace the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh in the Western world."

Such classes were later organized in other cities in the US: Enterprise, Kansas; Kenosha, Wisconsin; Ithaca, New York; New York City; Philadelphia; and Oakland, California. It is estimated that by 1899 about fifteen hundred Americans had become Bahá’ís, including seven hundred in Chicago.

Thornton later wrote about his introduction to the Faith as follows:

"In the month of June, 1894, a gentleman in Chicago desired to study Sanskrit, in order to further pursue his search into ancient religious teachings. While seeking an instructor he met a Syrian (Ibrahim Khayru'lláh) who had come to Chicago from Egypt a short time before, and who told him of the Bahá'i Movement.... As the statements of the life and teachings of Bahá`o'lláh and his son Abbás Effendi, the `Greatest Branch', otherwise known as 'Abdu’l-Bahá, accorded with the declarations of numerous sacred prophecies, and with the age-long expectations of mankind, it was deemed of value to investigate those claims as far as possible. Other seekers for truth become attracted to the study of matters, with the result that five accepted the teachings as true during the year 1894."

That same year after his declaration, Thornton taught the Faith widely during his extensive travels for his company as an insurance salesman. He also wrote numerous letters to interested seekers and gave a class on the Baha’i Faith. His Baha’i teaching activities took up more of his efforts and he soon became less interested in his profession and as a result his income suffered. His close friend, John Bosch wrote:

"In those days Thornton chase had an important insurance position in Chicago, with a salary of $750 a month which diminished every year because the Faith meant more to him than his business. Whenever he was coming to San Francisco he wired John; they would stop at different hotels, but dined together. He was very tall---about six feet two. He always ate two or three ice creams after supper; he always dug a big bite right out of the middle of it to start with. Around eleven o'clock, he used to say: "Now, John, I guess it's about time to take you home." Arm in arm, they would go to John's hotel, talking steadily about the Cause. They would sit in the parlor. About one o'clock I used to say: "Now, Mr. Chase, I guess it's about time to take you home." We used to wonder what the policeman on the beat thought about us. One night we brought each other home till four in the morning."

Thornton left memorable impressions on those whose path he crossed. A stenograph who worked in one of the offices where he called occasionally delights to tell of her impressions of him as he passed in and out. She recalled how “the moment he entered there was a different atmosphere. He filled the room with joy and happiness and lifted everyone around him.” She noticed that it seemed a light to “pour forth from his countenance.” Many others left similar testimonies about him.

A Baha’i recalled that “Mr. Chase was a veritable tower of spiritual strength, coupled with humility, gentleness and unceasing service. He stood out preeminently as a lover of God and a brother to all mankind. I was greatly impressed by the depth of his inner understanding, the breadth of his spiritual vision and the clarity of his mind. He possessed an inner stillness that at times was startling, and as he taught it was as though one stepped with him into an inner world that might be called a holy court, in which the spiritual sight became more keen, the inner ear more attuned to divine melodies, and the spirit seemed to contact with the Reality of existence. His attraction to the ‘Divine Beloved One’ was so complete that he found it difficult to carry on in the practical world of affairs.”

As far back as 1901, which was several years before he had visited 'Abdu'l Baha in the Most Great Prison in 'Akka, he wrote these words: "I wish that every believer, and everyone who has been inclined toward these Truths could have heard Mrs. Isabella Brittingham (another faithful disciple of 'Abdu'l Baha) who spoke to us here (Chicago) a week ago. She gives us the most clear and understandable account of our dear Master of any we have received, and her words and manner, wisdom and sincerity, stir our minds and hearts with great power, and confirm us in all that we have dared to hope. He, the most dignified, the most majestic, the most humble, the sweetest, the highest and the lowest, the king and the servant, the wisest, the most powerful, the most loving, the most merciful of all men, is indeed our Lord and Master, our princely leader in this religion of unity and of servitude. His whole life is one of devoted service in little things as well as in great, to each pilgrim there, to every person, He renders His service, never accepting even a piece of bread, until all present are first provided for. And this is not assumption on His part, but is the sincere outflowing of His love to each and all, and this same love asserts itself constantly in gladness or pain, in peace or in trouble, in freedom or imprisonment.” (Star of the West, Vol. 23, no.1, April, 1932)

Early life and family

Thornton Chase was born on 22 February 1847 in Springfield, Massachusetts. His parents were New Englanders of English stock and Baptist religious background. His father, a wealthy businessman, was also a singer and an amateur scientist. The death of Thornton’s mother eighteen days after he was born profoundly shaped his subsequent development. His father remarried three years later, and the couple soon adopted three girls, but the inner vacuum that his mother’s death had created in his heart apparently set him on a quest for love that culminated in his mystical interests.

After living in Springfield during his childhood and teen years; he joined up with the United Stated Military during the American Civil War, becoming a Captain. After the war he attended Brown University but dropped out before completing his second semester. He then returned to Springfield, where he worked as a salesman for his father’s timber business, and on 11 May 1870 he married Annie Elizabeth Allyn of Bristol, Rhode Island. The couple had two children: Sarah Thornton (1871) and Jessamine Allyn (1874). The marriage unfortunately lasted for only eight years. Thornton was reported to have been devastated by the divorce. He apparently went into the mountains of Colorado for a time, wandering in search of gold and silver, until he rallied and picked up the pieces of his life. On 6 May 1880 he married Eleanor Francisca Hockett. From his second marriage he had a son, William Jotham Thornton Chase, who was born in Santa Cruz, California on 28 June 1889 (d. 2 March 1967). Thornton’s older daughter, Sarah, married in 1895 and had five children before dying suddenly in 1908. His second daughter, Jessamine, who never married, became a schoolteacher and musician -- like her father. She died in 1947.

Thornton was fond of fishing and cultured a love of music, developing a clear baritone voice, and even performed in local operas. He always had a strong interest in religion, but never fully accepted the prevailing doctrines or sects he explored. Before he encountered the Baha’i Faith, He became a follower of the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, the great Swedish mystic, for a while. He wasn't fully content with this and eventually fell away. However, he always maintained a belief that the `Day of God' was concurrent; he was determined to follow this quest and find a new `word of God.'

Thornton continued to earn his living in various ways, as a journalist, an actor in Denver, and an operator of a music store. In 1888 he was hired by the Union Mutual Life Insurance Company as an agent and soon became the manager of its entire Colorado operation. In 1889 the company promoted him and moved him to its Santa Cruz and San Francisco offices. In California, Thornton Chase continued his religious search, combining it with his work. In 1893 he published a booklet called Sketches that uses biblical and religious stories to explain why people should purchase life insurance for themselves. The booklet reveals Chase as a religious seeker familiar with all the major religions.

His activities in the Baha’i community

The American Baha’is in 1899 had a rudimentary knowledge about the Baha’i administrative system. This was mainly based on the accounts brought back by those returning from pilgrimage to the Bahá’í holy places in Ottoman Palestine. Thornton became actively involved in administering the Chicago Bahá’í community, first in November 1899, when the community elected him as one of the officers, and then in March 1900, when he was elected as a member on a ten-member Board of Council. Some challenges arose in the Baha’i community starting in 1898 when Ibrahim Kheiralla began to insist on a formal role as leader of the American Bahá’ís. Thornton was one of those who tried unsuccessfully to help Kheiralla realize the inappropriateness of his demand, and subsequently played a central part in reorganizing the Bahá’í community independently of Kheiralla.

During 1900 and 1901 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sent four knowledgeable Baha’i travel teachers to the United States to deepen the Bahá’ís’ about the teachings of the Faith and its Covenant. They were ‘Abdu’l Karím Tihrání, Hájí Mírzá Hasan Khurásání, Mírzá Asadu’lláh Isfahání, and Mírzá Abu’l-Fadl Gulpáygání. Thornton Chase arranged for Mirza Asadu’llah and Mirza Abu’l-Fadl to stay at the Chicago Bahá’í Center and he even moved in the center with them while his wife was handling certain legal matters with respect to the death of his stepmother in Springfield.

Having acquired a deep understanding of the Bahá’í teachings during his time with the Persian travel teachers, Thornton soon emerged as the principal organizer of the Chicago Bahá’í community. In May 1901 he coordinated an election that replaced the Board of Council with a new consultative body, which initially called the Chicago House of Justice and later the Chicago House of Spirituality. By 1902 he was serving as chairman of the House of Spirituality, an office he retained until he moved to California in 1909. Having learned about the principles and the importance of Baha’i consultation from the Persian travel teachers, he became the first American Bahá’í to champion its use. Thornton Chase also wrote many circular letters that the House of Spirituality sent to Bahá’í communities throughout the United States and Canada, explaining the Bahá’í holy days and the period of fasting, thereby establishing their observance in North America.

Thornton’s writing experience proved useful in the effort to edit and publish Bahá’í literature. In 1900 he got together with three other Chicago Bahá’í businessmen and founded the ‘Behais Supply and Publishing Board of Chicago’. In the fall of 1902, the publisher was legally incorporated as the Bahai Publishing Society and soon emerged as the principal publisher of Bahá’í literature in the English-speaking world, becoming a major force behind the standardization of the spelling of Persian and Arabic Bahá’í names and terms. He became the principal editor of the society’s literature and one of its principal financiers. The society published several Bahá’í pamphlets that Thornton Chase wrote.

His pilgrimage to the Holy Land and its transformative effect

In 1907, Thornton Chase undertook a pilgrimage to ‘Akka. He was able to be with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá for only three days -- an experience that transformed him. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, highly impressed by Chase’s qualities, conferred on him the title Thábit, which means Steadfast. On returning home Chase wrote an account of his pilgrimage that was published in 1908 as In Galilee. The short work gives a detailed and poignant description of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s home and family in ‘Akka, as well as a moving description of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Himself – it’s very thoughtful and reflective.

Next, Thornton turned his thoughts to an introductory book on the Bahá’í Faith --The Bahai Revelation -- published in 1909. One of the most comprehensive and accurate introductions to the Bahá’í Faith written by an early Western Bahá’í, the work emphasizes the Bahá’í teachings as a vehicle for personal spiritual transformation. It continued to be reprinted until the 1920s. In one its chapters he wrote, "Age after age, through all history, One has appeared, who gave to man the Word of God, divine instruction how to live and what to do to attain a higher and heavenly station, to overcome former conditions and rise to a manner of life which should be permanent, sinless, perfect and valuable."

On August 9, 1912, Thornton wrote a poem about 'Abdu’l-Bahá that was published in the Star of the West:

Ode to the Center of the Covenant
(by Thornton Chase)
To the Center of the Covenant: ‘Abdu’l-Baha Abbas. May the Souls of all Mankind be a Sacrifice to Him!

O Thou David of the Promised Kingdom of GOD!
Thou Princely Leader of all Humanity!
Thou Warrior against the Tribes of Infidelity!
Thou Conqueror of Darkness and Radiator of Light!
Thou Bearer of the Banner of Divine Peace and Prosperity to the Nations!
Thou First Born in the Kingdom of Baha! Beloved of GOD and Men!
Thou First Citizen of the Royal and Holy City!
Thou Branch of the LORD, Beautiful and Glorious!
Thou Greatest Branch from the Ancient Root!
Thou Fruit bearing Branch of the Divine Tree!

This "Ode to the Center of the Covenant" which was composed by Thornton Chase a few weeks before his death was read in the holy presence of Abdul Baha. He indicated his wish to have it published in the Star of the West. It was therefore published in Vol. 4, no. 11.

He poured forth his innermost soul in such deepest adoration of ‘Abdu’l-Baha: "He is the Master! He is the Christ Spirit of this Great Age! He is the Anointed One! The Appointed of His Father! That Father was the Greatest Manifestation of God -- Baha'u'llah. He, ('Abdu'l-Baha) is the Center of the Covenant; the Healer and Satisfier of longing hearts! The King of servitude to Humanity!

Subsequent to his Pilgrimage to Akka he wrote: "The Baha'i Revelation is for every soul who is sincere, and to such it can bring a satisfaction and assurance that is permanent and sweet. I do earnestly hope that our friend Dr. ___ will be attracted to 'Akka, and that going there she will carry an open mind, a sincere heart, an unprejudiced attention. She will find a Man, one so entirely natural and devoid of assumption. One whose words will be so simple that children would be interested, One to whom personality is of no account…. But if once her soul meets 'Abdu'l Baha, she will find that after her visit, and as ships and trains bear her farther away from Him, she will increasingly wish that she might return to sit at His feet and learn more of Him." (Star of the West, Vol. 23, no.1, April, 1932)

In another correspondence he wrote: "Sometimes our friends are surprised that the visitors to 'Akka do not write or tell more important things concerning their experiences there. They all tell about the same story of the pleasant greetings, the wishes for their happiness, the inquiries for the progress of the Cause in America, and a few simple instructions drawn from little things or occurrences there. But ask those returning ones what they desire most of all, and you will find it is the wish to go again to 'Akka. And you will find that those simple good wishes and "Table Talks" have sown seeds in their souls, and they are not the same as they were before they went … One cannot taste of heaven without longing for the atmosphere of heaven." (Star of the West, Vol. 23, no.1, April, 1932)

In late 1909 the Union Mutual Life Insurance Company, concerned about the amount of time Chase was spending on his religious activities, transferred him to Los Angeles, hoping that a location remote from Bahá’í activity would decrease his opportunities to serve his religion. Chase considered resigning from the company, but at the age of sixty-two he found it impossible to obtain another job, and he had to support his wife, his son in college, and his elderly mother-in-law, none of whom had become Bahá’í. Consequently, Chase had no choice but to accept the new position, even though it paid much less than he had been earning.

Chase still traveled extensively for his company as far north as Seattle and as far east as Denver, travels that gave him opportunities to visit the rapidly developing Bahá’í communities of the Rocky Mountain and Pacific states. At home he helped to organize the Los Angeles Bahá’ís. In 1910 they elected Chase a member of their first five-member governing board and established their first monthly meetings. During this period Chase returned to writing poetry, primarily on the Bahá’í Faith.

Thornton Chase became ill, suddenly and unexpectedly, while traveling in late September 1912. Following abdominal surgery, he lay gravely ill in a Los Angeles hospital. On 27 September the Bahá’ís wired the news to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, who was visiting the United States at the time and had stopped briefly to rest in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, en route to San Francisco. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and His party were saddened by the news. Thornton died on the evening of 30 September, just a day before ‘Abdu’l-Bahá arrived in California, and was buried on 4 October in Inglewood Park Cemetery. Bahá’ís throughout the United States sent messages eulogizing him for his intelligence, his consultative approach to problems, his constant advocacy of the need for organization, and his loving disposition.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá made a special trip to Los Angeles to visit Chase’s grave. On 19 October, accompanied by about twenty-five Bahá’ís, He took a tram to the cemetery, walked solemnly and directly to the gravesite, and carefully covered it with flowers. He then chanted Bahá’u’lláh’s Tablet of Visitation, which is recited in the Shrines of Bahá’u’lláh and the Bab, and a prayer for the departed. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá reportedly praised Chase’s qualities: "During his lifetime he bore many trials and vicissitudes, but he was very patient and long-suffering. He had a heart most illuminated, a spirit most rejoiced; his hope was to serve the world of humanity. . . ." ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stated that Thornton Chase "will not be forgotten" and that his worth was not known then but would become "inestimably dear." ‘Abdu’l-Bahá indicated that “This revered personage was the first Baha'i in America. He served the Cause faithfully and his services will ever be remembered throughout ages and cycles. For the present his worth is not known, but in the future it will be inestimably dear. His sun will ever be shining, his stars will ever bestow the light. The people will honor this grave. Therefore, the friends of God must visit this grave and on my behalf bring flowers and seek the sublimity of the spiritual station for him and have the utmost consideration for the members of his family. This personage will not be forgotten." (Star of the West, Vol. 23, no.1, April, 1932) At the end of His visit, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá knelt and kissed the grave.
A beautiful slab marks the spot where his body rests. It is reported that 'Abdu'l-Baha provided this stone and that Mason Remey designed The Greatest Name that is inscribed thereon. Of him 'Abdu'l Baha is reported to have said once that "Thornton Chase is unique and peerless."

Shoghi Effendi, in God Passes By, his history of the first Bahá’í century, mentions the "poignant sight" of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá kissing the tombstone of "His beloved disciple" as one of the scenes from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit to the West that will never "be effaced from memory." Shoghi Effendi also included Thornton Chase among outstanding early Bahá’i’s of the West whom he designated as "Disciples of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.”

Adhering to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s instructions, the American Bahá’í community holds an annual commemoration at Thornton’s grave on the Sunday nearest to the date of his death. His importance as an early North American Bahá’í thinker, publicist, administrator, and organizer is still underappreciated, however. In many ways his death left a gap in the North American Bahá’í community that remained unfilled until the rise to prominence in the early 1920s of Horace Holley, the chief developer of Bahá’í organization in the United States and Canada.

(Adapted from the following books and online resources: ‘Some Early Baha’is of the West’, by O.Z. Whitehead; Star of the West, Vol. 4, no. 11; Star of the West, vol. 4, no. 13; Star of the West, Vol. 3, No. 19; Star of the West, Vol. 12; Star of the West, Vol. 23, no.1; ‘Thornton Chase the First Baha'i from the Western Hemisphere’, by Richard Francis,1998, online document at http://bahai-library.com;’Thornton Chase’, online Wikipedia encyclopedia , at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/; and, ‘Chase, Thornton (1847–1912)’, from The Baha’i Encyclopedia Project at http://www.bahai-encyclopedia)