Thornton Chase (February 22, 1847 – September 30, 1912) was a U.S. businessman and writer; he was commonly recognized as the first convert to the Bahá'í Faith of Occidental background. During his life he organized many Bahá'í activities in Chicago and Los Angeles and was considered a prominent Bahá'í.
He was born James Brown Thornton Chase on 22 February 1847 in Springfield, Massachusetts to parents of English stock and Baptist religion. His father was a singer, amateur scientist, and wealthy businessman. Chase's father was a descendant of Aquila Chase who migrated from Chesham in 1630 and of many other colonial families (such as Thomas Dudley). Chase's mother, who was of similar pedigree, died eighteen days after he was born, an event that profoundly shaped Chase's subsequent development. Chase's father remarried three years later and the couple adopted three girls. Apparently three-year-old Thornton was not wanted; the United States 1850 census shows that he was living with a foster family in West Springfield. Chase himself describes his childhood as "loveless and lonely," and the inner vacuum he felt apparently set him on a quest for love, which culminated in his mystical interests.
For four years, aged thirteen to sixteen, Chase lived in Newton, Mass., with the Rev. Samuel Francis Smith, a prominent Baptist clergyman. In July 1863 Chase was accepted to Brown University, but instead of matriculating, in early 1864, just before his seventeenth birthday, Chase went to Philadelphia to attend a school for officers for black infantry units. By May, 1864 Chase was second in charge of one hundred men, Company K of the Twenty sixth United States Colored Troops. On July 5 and 7 the unit fought two battles south of Charleston, S.C.; Chase was wounded by an exploding cannon, permanently injuring the hearing in his left ear. In 1865 he was promoted to captain and commanded Company D of the 104th U. S. C. T.
Marriage and employment
Chase began to attend Brown University in September 1866 but dropped out before completing the second semester. He returned to Springfield, where he became a salesman for his father's lumber business. On 11 May 1870 he married Annie Elizabeth Allyn of Bristol, Rhode Island, and they had two children: Sarah Thornton (1871–1908) and Jessamine Allyn (1874–1947). Chase started his own specialty lumber business, directed the choir of First Baptist Church, and served as an officer in one of Springfield’s musical organizations.
In 1872 Chase's business failed. Unemployed, he moved to Boston, where he obtained a meager living as an actor and singer. In 1873, in the midst of loneliness, poverty, and a sense of failure, Chase had an experience of God's love, of love "unspeakable," of "absolute oneness." The experience pulled him back from the brink of destruction, renewed his hope, and set him on a religious search.
When he had exhausted his employment opportunities in Boston, Chase moved to Fort Howard (Green Bay, Wisconsin), where he taught school for a time. He moved to Chicago, where he acted in plays at McVicker’s, one of the city's better known theaters. Subsequently he obtained teaching and music tutoring jobs in Kansas. Finally he settled in Del Norte, Colorado. Meanwhile, Annie remained in Springfield with her mother and two daughters, waiting for her husband to settle and provide his family support. She finally moved back to Rhode Island and in March 1878 sued Chase for divorce. He begged her to reconsider, but the court granted her petition. She lived the rest of her days in Newport, Rhode Island, dying in 1918. Chase's older daughter, Sarah, married in 1895 and had five children before dying suddenly in 1908. Chase's other daughter, Jessamine, never married and became a school teacher and musician like her father; she died in 1947.
Chase apparently was devastated by the divorce. Sources indicate that he went into the Colorado mountains for a time, wandering in search of gold and silver. He remarried on 6 May 1880 and settled in Pueblo. Once again he became extremely active in music, directing a succession of musical and theatrical groups. He invented and patented a prospector's pick. He began to publish poetry in local newspapers and magazines; one poem focuses on Jesus's love for humanity, thereby highlighting Chase's devotion to Jesus.
In 1882 Chase moved to Denver and joined the local Swedenborgian church. Swedenborgianism emphasized a metaphorical interpretation of the Bible and stressed a mystical approach to Jesus and Christianity; thus its Christianity was much less doctrinal that the Baptist Church of Chase's childhood. After five years, however, the Denver church was wracked by doctrinal disputes, and about that time Chase abandoned it and all other Christian churches. He initiated a broader religious search and began to read a wide variety of books about religion.
Chase earned his living in various ways, as a journalist, an actor in Denver, and as 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 their entire Colorado operation. In 1889 they promoted him and moved him to their California office. On 28 June 1889 Chase's only son, William Jotham Thornton Chase, was born. Chase published a booklet called Sketches that explains why people should purchase life insurance for themselves, using biblical and religious stories to illustrate its major points. The booklet reveals Chase as a religious seeker familiar with all the major religions.
About 1893 Union Mutual promoted Chase to superintendent of all agencies west of the Appalachians. This necessitated a move to Chicago. One day in early 1894 Chase was writing a poem about God when a business colleague entered his office. The colleague was intrigued by the poem and told Chase about a man who was teaching that God had recently "walked upon the earth." Chase investigated and discovered that the teacher was Ibrahim George Kheiralla, recently come to the United States and the second Bahá'í in America after Anton Haddad, from Beirut, Lebanon. Chase and a small group of Chicagoans began to study the Bahá'í Faith with him. Chase indicates that 5 June 1894 was a crucial date for the class; probably it was the day the class began. By 1895 he had completed the class and become a Bahá'í. At least three other Americans completed the class and accepted the new religion before him, but subsequently they left the Bahá'í Faith. Thus Chase should be considered the first American to become and remain a Bahá'í, and not the first American Bahá'í per se.
Classes on the Bahá'í Faith were organized in Chicago, and later in Enterprise, Kansas; Kenosha, Wisconsin; Ithaca, New York; New York City; Philadelphia; and Oakland, California. By 1899 about fifteen hundred Americans had become Bahá'ís, seven hundred in Chicago itself. Chase himself taught a class on the religion, wrote numerous letters to interested seekers, and taught the religion widely during his frequent travels for his company.
In 1899 American Bahá'í pilgrims went on pilgrimage to Akka, Palestine, where they met `Abdu'l-Bahá. They brought knowledge of the Bahá'í organizational system to the United States. Chase became one of the leading organizers of the Chicago community, first in November 1899, when the community elected new officers, and then in March 1900, when the community elected a ten-member "Board of Council." Chase was one of the 1899 officers and a member of the 1900 board. When Ibrahim Kheiralla became increasingly alienated from the Bahá'í community in 1899 and 1900, Chase was one of the leaders of the effort to reconcile Kheiralla with the other American Bahá'ís. When reconciliation became impossible, Chase was a leader of the effort to organize the Bahá'í Faith independently of Kheiralla.
In 1900 and 1901 `Abdu'l-Bahá sent `Abdu'l-Karím-i-Tihrání, Hájí Mírzá Hassan-i-Khurásání, Mírzá Asadu'lláh, and Mírzá Abu'l-Fadl to the United States to deepen the Bahá'ís. Chase arranged for the latter two to stay in the Chicago Bahá'í Center, and moved into the center with them when his wife had to go east for a year to handle legal matters connected with the death of Chase's stepmother in Springfield. Chase acquired a deep understanding of the Bahá'í teachings during his time with the Persians.
Chase soon emerged as the principal organizer of the Chicago Bahá'í community. In May 1901 he coordinated the election of a new consultative body, which was first called the Chicago House of Justice and then the Chicago House of Spirituality. By 1902 Chase was serving as chairman, an office he retained until moving out of Chicago in 1909. Chase had learned about the Bahá'í principle of consultation from the Persian teachers and emphasized its importance, thus becoming the first American Bahá'í to champion it. Chase also wrote many circular letters that the House of Spirituality sent to Bahá'í communities throughout the United States and Canada, informing them of Bahá'í Holy Days and the fast, thereby establishing their observance in North America.
Chase's writing experience proved useful in the effort to edit and publish Bahá'í literature. Chase and four other Chicago Bahá'í businessmen founded the "Behais Supply and Publishing Board" in 1900; in the fall of 1902 it was legally incorporated as the Bahai Publishing Society. It soon emerged as the principal publisher of Bahá'í literature in the English-speaking world, and became a major force behind the standardization of the spelling of Middle Eastern Bahá'í names and terms. Chase was the principal editor of the society's literature and one of its principal financial supporters. The society published several early Bahá'í pamphlets written by Chase.
In 1907 Chase was able to go on pilgrimage. Though Chase was able to be with `Abdu'l Bahá in Akka for only three days, the experience transformed him. `Abdu'l-Bahá, highly impressed by Chase's qualities, conferred on him the title thábit, "steadfast."
On returning home Chase wrote an account of his pilgrimage, which was published under the title In Galilee in 1908. 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. The work remains one of the most important examples of the genre commonly known as pilgrim's notes. Chase then turned his thoughts to an introductory book on the Bahá'í Faith. Published as The Bahai Revelation in 1909, this work was one of the most comprehensive and accurate introductions to the Bahá'í Faith written by an early American Bahá'í. It continued to be reprinted until the 1920s. The work emphasized the Bahá'í Faith and its teachings as a vehicle for personal spiritual transformation.
In late 1909 the Union Mutual Life Insurance Company, seeking to reduce Chase’s devotion to religious activities, transferred him to Los Angeles. Chase considered resigning from the company, but at age 62 another job was impossible to find. He had to support a wife, a son in college, and an elderly mother-in-law, so he accepted the new position, even though it paid much less. Chase still traveled extensively for his company as far north as Seattle and as far east as Denver, and these travels gave him opportunities to visit the rapidly developing Bahá'í communities of the Mountain and Pacific states. He also returned to writing poetry, primarily on the Bahá'í Faith. He helped to organize the Los Angeles Bahá'ís; in 1910 they elected a five-member governing board that included Chase as a member. They also established their first monthly meetings.
Thornton Chase died on 30 September 1912 in Los Angeles, of complications following unsuccessful surgery. `Abdu'l Bahá was on a train en route to California at the time; He immediately changed his plans and went to Los Angeles to visit Chase's grave. There he praised Chase's qualities highly, instructed the Bahá'ís to hold a commemoration of Chase annually at his grave, and encouraged Bahá'ís to visit the gravesite. Researcher Robert Stockman considers Chase's importance as an early North American Bahá’í thinker, publicist, administrator, and organizer is still underappreciated and that in many ways Chase’s 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.
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- Stockman, Robert H. (2009). "Chase, Thornton (1847-1912)". Bahá’í Encyclopedia Project. Evanston, IL: National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States.