Thornton Chase: chapter 10 Chapter Ten


      In 1888 Thornton Chase's success with the Union Mutual Life Insurance Company apparently led to a promotion or a transfer, and he moved to California. He may have lived in San Francisco briefly; its city directory gives his business address and lists him as an "insurance agent" in 1889. He was also working for Union Mutual in 1892 at its San Francisco office, but apparently during the intervening years he lived in Santa Cruz. The San Francisco city directory does not list Thornton again until 1894, when he maintained an office in the city but not a residence (by that year he was actually living in Chicago).[1]

      In Santa Cruz one of Thornton's desires was fulfilled; on 28 June 1889 Eleanor gave birth to a son. They named the boy William Jotham Thornton Chase, the Jotham after Thornton's father. Numerous baby photographs speak of the parents' pride in their child. To help rear him, they hired a nanny named Annie Sullivan. When neither parent decided to baptize their son--apparently by 1889 Eleanor as well as Thornton desired no contact with the churches--Annie Sullivan took the boy to a church herself and had him baptized.[2]

      Santa Cruz, in 1890 a pleasant city of 7,000 people, contained three newspapers, four banks, a public high school, a public library, a street railway, electric lights, gas and water works, and a telephone company. Timber, wine, and shoes were among the city's products. Rail lines and steamships connected it to San Francisco.[3] Because Thornton is not listed in any state directories that include Santa Cruz, or in any city tax or voting lists, and no city directories from the period survive, exactly what he did for a living and whether he was involved in musical or theatrical groups cannot be determined. Nor are any poems from this period known, either published or in his personal papers. In 1905, to a Bahá'í who wrote poetry, he said that "once in long years agone I used to `dabble' a little in rhyme," which suggests a long drought in his poetic activities. Probably domestic responsibilities and work took up much of his time. A photograph of a camping trip under Santa Cruz's redwoods suggests that the family spent time in the out of doors as well. Eleanor Chase acquired many "staunch friends" in Santa Cruz during their stay there.[4]

      Information on Thornton's California period is extremely sparce. The San Francisco earthquake destroyed many records there that could have contained clues about his activities. Thornton himself says nothing about this period of his life. A little can be inferred about his religious interests. In a letter written in 1906, he notes that after abandoning the churches he "became for a period empty of all belief in any of their teachings."[5] This probably refers to his California years. Elsewhere he refers to receiving a "thorough instruction in hypnotism" and having "practiced it somewhat," probably in the early or mid-1890s. In the late nineteenth century, hypnotism was often taught as a spiritual or self-help exercise, like transcendental meditation or EST. Thornton's instruction in hypnotism was part of his religious search, but he soon rejected it as a distraction from the spiritual and as potentially harmful.[6]

      California must have provided Thornton with new opportunities for studying religion. San Francisco had a public library more extensive than Denver's and probably had greater religious diversity as well. Even Santa Cruz had remarkable diversity. From 1888 to 1894 a Swedenborgian who had converted to Buddhism named Herman Carl Vetterling (but called Philangi Dasa) published the Buddhist Ray from his cabin in the mountains outside Santa Cruz. It was America's first Buddhist periodical. Although there is no evidence Thornton knew its editor, it seems unlikely that in a small city like Santa Cruz he would not have at least heard of Vetterling or his paper, especially when one considers their common religious interests.[7]

      Thornton's religious search had brought him to some conclusions about the religions of the world. In 1893 he wrote his first book, Sketches, which outlined the various reasons why one should subscribe to life insurance. It was published by his company. The booklet's earnest stress on practical and religious reasons for carrying life insurance suggests that Thornton's own involvement in the industry was ideologically motivated.

      One chapter discusses "practical religion," by which Thornton meant the importance of the individual helping himself or herself. Rather than just stressing Christianity, the booklet begins with an appeal to the basic values of all religions:

Throughout the great religions of the world runs a core of doctrine which is essentially the same in all. It is the precept "Do good unto others."

      Be the creed one of faith or acts, of trusting belief or of saving deeds, the "doing good" is inculcated as a necessary adjunct, and in many religions is made the prime foundation for all future happiness, progress and salvation.[8]

      Thornton had studied the world's religions enough to feel capable of making general statements about them. The next paragraph, in a sense, resembles the Bahá'í principle of "progressive revelation," although Thornton Chase had not yet heard of the Bahá'í Faith. Of course, in keeping with the Christian bias of Thornton's culture, the order of the prophets is decidedly Christian:

      Buddha, Brahma, Mahomet, Swedenborg, Confucius, Moses and The Christ, all teach it [doing good], and press it strongly upon their disciples; and even the atheist and agnostic magnify it as lovely, and to be desired above all things. It is the pith and sap of all trees of knowledge which the great teachers of the world have planted.[9]

The list of religious teachers is out of chronological order; perhaps it represents the approximate importance of these figures to Thornton Chase in 1893.

      Thornton then argued that the principle of "doing good to others" is the basic principle of life insurance:

      No Trade, no Union, no Philanthropy, no Profession, not even that of Ministry, and certainly no Business as thoroughly carries the religion of "Doing good unto others" into practice as does the business of Life Insurance. It is the ideal Religion made actual. Its essence and primal object is to effectively provide for the needy, the widows and the fatherless, to hold out to the sorrowful ones, not mere the hand of sympathy, but a hand filled with substantial comforts. . . . Every insurance agent, perhaps unconsciously, but not less actually, is a practical minister of practical religion.[10]

      Thornton then is even more specific and offers a line-by-line interpretation of the "Parable of the Sower" (Matt. 13:3-8) from a life insurance perspective. The parable describes an insurance agent, Thornton asserts, who sows some of his seeds and birds eat them; that is, other insurance agents gobble up some of his accounts. The agent sows some on rocky ground, that is, he sells policies to some who then allow their policies to lapse just before they are actually needed. He sows some seeds among thorns that choke the seedlings, that is, he sells some policies to those who become rich and, ceasing to appreciate their policies, let them lapse. But a few seeds are sown in good ground and bring forth their fruit a hundred fold; that is, some persons buy and continue their policies until they gain their benefit from them. Thornton concludes, "For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance; but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath" (Matt. 13:12); he interprets the verse to mean "GOD HELPS THOSE WHO HELP THEMSELVES."[11]

      The rest of the book describes the various types of life insurance and the various kinds of life-insurance companies and the advantages and disadvantages of each. It describes and rebuts the various arguments against life insurance. Practicality, planning ahead, and doing good to others--to one's wife and children--are stressed throughout.

      Sketches indicates that Thornton Chase's religious search had led him to examine all the religions of the world and to ponder their basic teachings. It suggests that he found a commonality in them and behind them. However, he could not commit himself to any one of them. He respected them and, as he later put it, "found many items of truth everywhere (some truth in everything)."[12] But, Chase noted, "as the years went on, and I could not even find any satisfaction as to Who or What God was, and as nothing appeared for me to do for Him, Whom I could not find at all--even with the years of daily study and search into the teachings of the religions of the world, I began to despair."[13] Although every other aspect of Thornton's life had been successful, his religious search--perhaps the basic element in his life--had not. Fortunately, his wait was about to come to an end.


[1]Langley's San Francisco Directory For the Year Commencing May, 1889. Embracing an Accurate Index of Residents and a Business Directory, also A Guide to Streets, Public Offices, Etc., and a Reliable Map of the City. Together with The Officers of the Municipal Government, Societies and other Organizations, and a great variety of Useful Information, comp. W. H. L. Corran (San Francisco: Francis, Valentine and Co., 1889) 339. In his application for a veteran's pension, 17 March 1909, in his Veteran's records, United States Government Archives, Washington, D.C., Thornton Chase says he was in Colorado "until 1888" and San Francisco "to 1893." Probably by "San Francisco" Chase meant near San Francisco, since Santa Cruz is much smaller than the former and relatively close to it. On 7 April 1892 Thornton Chase applied for a veteran's pension and stated his address was 419 California Street, Room 20, San Francisco; according to the city directory that was the address for Union Mutual. Neither the city directory nor Thornton Chase give a San Francisco residence for him. A photograph of a woman named Annie Sullivan notes that she was the nurse of Thornton's son "from birth until four years old" (in possession of Thornton Chase Nelson; photocopy in author's personal papers). Since the boy was born in Santa Cruz in 1889, this suggests the family remained in Santa Cruz from 1889 to 1893.

[2]The date of birth of William Jotham Thornton Chase is given in his obituary in the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, May 1967. His exact name cannot be ascertained because no birth certificate has survived; the State of California does not have birth records before 1905, and the birth records in Santa Cruz were destroyed by a flood. It is possible that "William" is not part of his legal name. The account of his baptism comes from Livinia Morris Chase, his widow, in a personal interview with the author. It was confirmed in a telephone interview of Thornton Chase Nelson by the author, 9 February 1988, in Robert H. Stockman, Thornton Chase Research Notebook, p. 40.3, author's personal papers. None of the churches in Santa Cruz have a record of his baptism, consequently it can not be determined in which church he was baptized; Thornton Chase Nelson is under the impression that Annie Sullivan was a Catholic.

[3]R. L. Polk and Company's California State Gazetter, 1890, p. 975.

[4]Thornton Chase to Louise Waite (copy), 22 October 1905, 4, TC. The photograph of the camp under redwoods near Santa Cruz is in possession of Thornton Chase Nelson (copy in author's personal papers). Thornton Chase to Ella G. Cooper, 1 April 1908, 4, Ella Cooper papers, San Francisco Bahá'í Archives, San Francisco, Cal.

[5]Thornton Chase to `Abdu'l-Bahá (copy), 19 April 1906, 3, TC.

[6]Thornton Chase to John J. Abramson (copy), 13 April 1898, 7, TC.

[7]Notes on the Buddhist Ray, in Thornton Chase Research Notebook, p. 15.4; Rick Fields, How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1986) 130-32; the most complete account of Herman Carl Vetterling's life can be found in Thomas A. Tweed, The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844-1912 (Bloomington: Univ. of Indiana Press, 1992) 58-60.

[8]Thornton Chase, Sketches (Portland, Maine: Union Mutual Life Insurance Co., 1893) 43.

[9]Chase, Sketches 43.

[10]Chase, Sketches 43-44.

[11]Chase, Sketches 44-45.

[12]Thornton Chase to Dr. C. M. Eells (copy), 8 February 1911, 1, TC.

[13]Thornton Chase to `Abdu'l-Bahá (copy), 12 May 1902, TC.
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