Because Thornton Chase's personal papers are completely silent about his Bahá'í involvement before 1898, reconstructing his role in the community is difficult. Undoubtedly Chase wrote frequently to Ibrahim Kheiralla, especially when Chase was out of Chicago, but unfortunately none of the letters have survived in the Chase Papers. His diary, also, is no longer extant. As a result the account of his activities and efforts that can be reconstructed is undoubtedly incomplete.
Thornton's wife's attitude toward the Bahá'í Faith is important but unknown. In later years Eleanor attended Bahá'í meetings only occasionally, hosted the Chicago Bahá'í women at least once, and wrote letters to Bahá'í women. In short, she was tied socially to the Chicago Bahá'í community and especially to individual Bahá'ís in some ways. However, she never became a Bahá'í. In 1908 she "rather pride[d] herself. . . on saying she is not a Bahai," although she discussed the religion frequently. She never affiliated with another religious group, but became interested in Christian Science. After 1909 she became increasingly opposed to Thornton's Bahá'í involvement.
It is very likely she was not interested in the Bahá'í Faith in the nineteenth century, because her name is not on the list of persons who studied the Bahá'í Faith in North America through September 1899. Thornton later noted that she "is not fond of Orientals," which probably applied to Kheiralla as well; indeed, her lack of fondness for Orientals may have started with him, for his personality often alienated people.
Furthermore, Kheiralla had a rule that his students should not tell others about the details of his teachings; quoting words attributed to Jesus in Matthew 7:6, he told his pupils not to "cast. . . your pearls before swine." The best way to judge the fitness of others to receive the Bahá'í message, Kheiralla believed, was to invite them to attend his talks, where they would acquire the entire message in its proper order instead of learning pieces of it haphazardly. It is possible that Kheiralla did not formulate this rule until late 1895--when his classes began--and that Eleanor heard as much of Kheiralla's teachings as she desired to receive. But since Eleanor did not take Kheiralla's Bahá'í classes, her knowledge of Thornton's new religion would have been limited. She may not even have known the name of the group, other than its public appellation, the "Truth Seekers."
Thornton's book knowledge about religion--and about the Bahá'í Faith--may have been important to the fledgling Chicago Bahá'í community, and possibly to Kheiralla as well. Kheiralla later noted that when he taught the Bahá'í Faith in the United States, "nearly all I knew, then, of the utterances [of Bahá'u'lláh] were those which I read in the books of Prof. E. G. Browne, of Cambridge, England, and a few communes and tablets which I copied in Cairo, Egypt, before I came to America." Much of the information on Bahá'u'lláh and `Abdu'l-Bahá that Kheiralla later gave to his students came from Browne. Chase notes that Kheiralla learned of Browne "soon" after beginning to teach the Faith in Chicago. It is possible that Chase introduced Kheiralla to Browne's works.
Thornton may have recommended various books about religion to Kheiralla as well. When Kheiralla finally published his lessons on the Bahá'í Faith, in 1900, the book contained at least 122 citations of other works. He cited Browne the most; popular works on the Bible and world religions were the next most common references. Considering how poor Kheiralla's English was when he arrived in the United States, he probably had not read any books on the Bible, religion, or the Bahá'í Faith in English while he lived in Egypt. However, such works would have been exactly what Thornton had been reading during the previous twenty years. Undoubtedly Chase suggested some of them to Kheiralla.
The first American Bahá'ís asked Kheiralla many questions about religion, and he did not know the Bahá'í answers to some of them. One example was reincarnation. One early Bahá'í later noted that Kheiralla had been taught the idea by "the early group of believers--Chase, Stewart, etc. . ." After accepting his pupils' belief in reincarnation, Kheiralla taught it as a Bahá'í belief; he had no access to Bahá'u'lláh's writings, which do not accept reincarnation.
In addition to asking Kheiralla questions, the first four American Bahá'ís told their friends about him, and they became interested in Kheiralla's teachings as well. Kates Ives, born on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in 1863, became a Bahá'í in 1895. She became at least the fifth North American to accept Bahá'u'lláh. By the fall of 1895 enough people were interested in Kheiralla's teachings that he had to organize a formal class; apparently this was his first formal course of lessons on the Bahá'í Faith. When the course was finished, on 19 January 1896, five or six more people became Bahá'ís. For the next two and a half years Kheiralla had at least one class in session almost all the time.
The classes underwent some change from 1895 to 1900, when they were last given, but their basic form remained essentially the same. Drawing on his knowledge of Middle Eastern mysticism and metaphysics, Kheiralla first offered three lectures about the nature of the body, mind, and soul, including an attempt to prove human immortality. None of these lessons contained any teachings that were explicitly from the Bahá'í Faith. The fourth lesson focused on prayer; at its conclusion Kheiralla passed out typed copies of two or three Bahá'í prayers. The fifth through tenth lessons discussed biblical figures, such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses. The lessons also contained some information on Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. In these lectures Kheiralla sought to demonstrate the unity of all the world's religions, their common origin in Judaism, their subsequent corruption by human interpretation and misrepresentation, and their promises of fulfillment in the coming of the "everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6). Then Kheiralla taught three lessons about Bahá'u'lláh, his predecessor, the Báb, and `Abdu'l-Bahá, describing the life of each in terms of the biblical prophecies they fulfilled. Finally, he invited his pupils to write a letter to `Abdu'l-Bahá, who was in confinement in the Holy Land, and to receive the Greatest Name.
The lessons Kheiralla taught in 1894 or 1895 probably were much simpler. Most likely they did not include the information on Eastern religions, nor some of the interpretation about the Bible. Most likely, between 1894 and 1896 the major change Kheiralla made to his teachings involved separating the discussion of biblical characters and prophecy from discussion of the Bahá'í central figures; Chase's statements suggest that initially the two were discussed together, whereas after 1895 Kheiralla taught biblical lessons first, without mentioning the Bahá'í figures directly, and told his students about them in the later lessons. It is also likely that many of the biblical interpretations that Kheiralla taught were the fruit of Kheiralla's and his first pupils' studying the Bible and Browne's books together for a year.
Kheiralla's classes were extremely successful; the majority of his pupils became Bahá'ís and received the Greatest Name. A month or two after the first class graduated, on 19 January 1896, a second one started, which ended on 21 May. The summer was a bad time for regular classes--too many people were away--hence the next class began in September and ended on 8 December. The year 1897 dawned with thirty Bahá'ís in Chicago, and over thirty more people wanting to take classes. Two classes started. These classes graduated on 26 March and 4 April 1897; Chicago now had over sixty Bahá'ís. With such a large increase in numbers, a more formal organization was necessary, hence the Chicago Bahá'ís established a treasury and opened a treasurer's book. Probably weekly community meetings for worship and Bible study started as well.
The increase in membership and seekers also made the publication of an introductory booklet more urgent. In 1896, probably late in the year, Kheiralla published Za-ti-et Al-lah: The Identity and the Personality of God. It summarized his lecture on the nature of God. This lecture was not one of the formal lessons but, rather, a preliminary talk to interest inquirers in taking the lessons. The quality of the English is much better than what one would expect of someone who had been in the United States only a few years. Thornton Chase apparently edited one of Kheiralla's later works before publication, hence he may have edited Za-ti-et Al-lah as well. Possibly he also edited Kheiralla's second work, Bab-ed-Din; The Door of True Religion, which appeared in 1897. Its first half consisted of a new edition of Za-ti-et Al-lah, and the second half was an attack on the Protestant doctrine of Christ's vicarious Atonement.
With the increase in the number of Chicago Bahá'ís, a community came into existence. But Thornton's involvement in Chicago Bahá'í community life would have been limited because of his travel, often for a week or two at a time and unexpectedly. Nevertheless, by 1898 he was teaching a Bahá'í class on the south side of Chicago with the help of a Mr. Jones. Possibly Mr. Jones was conducting the classes when Chase had to be away.
Chase also taught the Bahá'í Faith to a close friend named Charles Greenleaf. Possibly Thornton had known Greenleaf for many years; his uncle, Oscar H. Greenleaf, lived across Maple Street from Jotham Chase and attended the same Baptist church. When Jotham died, Oscar helped Cornelia settle the estate. Oscar eventually became a Bahá'í. Charles had never lived in Springfield but was a resident of Chicago, where he became a Bahá'í on 5 October 1897. Charles's wife, Elizabeth Greenleaf, and their two sons also became Bahá'ís.
Because of Kheiralla's restriction on teaching the Faith, Chase would have been limited in his effectiveness as a traveling Bahá'í teacher. He rarely stayed in a city longer than a week, not enough time to offer Kheiralla's twelve or thirteen formal lessons to interested seekers. However, he did interest others in the Bahá'í Faith: He told two agents of the Union Mutual Life Insurance Company in Cincinnati, Purley M. Blake and Henry "Harry" Clayton Thompson, about the Faith in 1898 or 1899. They told their friends in Cincinnati; subsequently the Chicago Bahá'ís sent a teacher to that city to give Kheiralla's lessons, and a Bahá'í community was established.
Cincinnati was not the first place outside Chicago where the Bahá'í Faith obtained a foothold. Kheiralla visited Enterprise, a small manufacturing town in central Kansas, in the summer of 1897, and a dozen persons became Bahá'ís there. In the fall of 1897 he traveled by train weekly to Kenosha, Wisconsin; as a result, the second organized Bahá'í community in North America was established there in January 1898. From Kenosha, the Bahá'í Faith spread north to Racine and Milwaukee. From January through July 1898 Kheiralla was on the East Coast. He taught the Bahá'í Faith in Ithaca, New York City, and Philadelphia; New York City became the site of the religion's third organized community in America. The Bahá'í Faith also spread to northern New Jersey, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. To continue the lessons in Chicago in his absence, Kheiralla appointed Paul Dealy, a new convert, as the city's primary Bahá'í teacher.
Because Thornton traveled extensively, Kheiralla gave him addresses of Bahá'ís or seekers in other localities. He asked Chase, whenever he traveled to Colorado, to visit Enterprise to strengthen its new Bahá'í community. Apparently Chase was unable to stop there, but he did initiate correspondence with John Abramson, an Enterprise Bahá'í, and answered many of his questions about the Faith. Abramson had a brother who lived in Jerusalem, and Abramson wrote him for information on the Bahá'í religion, receiving three letters in reply. The first one contained mostly inaccurate impressions of the Bahá'ís gleaned from missionaries and other foreigners resident in Palestine. Later letters were based on published sources and provided Abramson with accurate information. Chase copied the letters for his own use, thereby learning about the Faith from a new source.
Thornton's correspondence with Abramson also provides the first glimpse into the nature of early American Bahá'í beliefs. Abramson wrote Chase on 21 March 1898 to ask him a series of questions about Kheiralla's teachings. Kheiralla taught that God had created only so many souls; what would happen, Abramson asked, when all those souls have been saved and are no longer "subject to the laws of birth and death"? Chase replied that Kheiralla's teachings do not say that everyone will eventually become "Children of God," but only those who "earnestly seek to become so"; and if everyone were saved, God could create more souls, or initiate an entirely new and different plan for creation.
Abramson then asked a question involving interpretation of the parable of the lost son (Luke 15:11-32). In the parable, a man divides his goods between his two sons. The older remains at home to serve his father, while the younger goes to live in a far country, where he squanders the wealth he was given and then becomes repentant of his immoral lifestyle. He returns home, humbly seeking to be a mere servant of his father, for he feels unworthy to be his father's son. But his father, seeing the son is repentant, welcomes him home and honors him with a feast. This makes the older, loyal son jealous.
Chase offered an interpretation of the story that apparently came from Kheiralla. It spoke of the different spiritual stations of humans (the younger son) and angels (the elder son). The journey of the younger son to the far country is the descent of humanity to the earth, and the younger son's squandering of his wealth represents humanity's denial that it was made in its Creator's image. The denial occurred in the Garden of Eden; but because the resulting fall of humanity gave it free will, humanity now had the capability of recognizing its servitude to God and returning to God. Chase noted that this was what Kheiralla meant when he interpreted the story of Adam and Eve as a "fall up-stairs," because the fall had ultimately produced great gain by conferring free will on humanity. Chase also noted that many religions speak of the jealousy of angels for the spiritual station of humanity. He interpreted the first chapter of Hebrews to back up Kheiralla's teaching. Thornton's reply reveals familiarity with different Bible translations, the meanings of important Hebrew words, and considerable thought about biblical passages. It reflects an American emphasis on the idea of free will and an implicit rejection of the predestination emphasized by Calvinism.
Detailed, often esoteric interpretation of biblical verses was common among the early American Bahá'ís. Letters of Chase to Purley M. Blake, a Cincinnati Bahá'í, give several examples. One letter says that the Chicago woman who went to Cincinnati to teach the Bahá'í Faith explained that there were two classes of angels; those who had been humans, and those who had not. In another letter to Blake, Chase says that "I am satisfied that Jesus did give another Name of God to his disciples in strict secresy [sic], not the Name, Jehovah, but another. Possibly it was `Abba' with which he addressed God his father." Apparently someone had speculated that if Bahá'u'lláh had revealed the Greatest Name, other Prophets may have revealed a name of God as well; "Jehovah" would have been the name revealed by Moses, and "Abba" (Father) the one by Jesus. Other letters by Chase are saturated with biblical phrases, terms, and imagery; the Bible very much shaped the understanding of the Bahá'í Faith that the early American Bahá'ís held.
Another excellent example of symbolic biblical exegesis is an essay by Chase, The Serpent. It appeared by 13 April 1900, but may have been written several years earlier; the work is the earliest publication by an American Bahá'í on a topic related to the Bahá'í Faith. The eighteen-page booklet consists of a commentary on the image of the serpent in the Old and New Testaments. It makes no mention of the Bahá'í Faith at all, and thus may be influenced by Kheiralla's tradition of keeping the teaching of the Bahá'í Faith private.
John Abramson's third question to Thornton Chase probably reflected the confusion of the Bahá'ís in Enterprise about Kheiralla's teachings, and their inactivity as Bahá'ís. He asks:
Suppose a person, or a number of persons receive the teachings as Dr. K. has taught us, and also receive the Greatest Name, but, will not search nor study for the spiritual blessings to be attained, what good is it to them? Are they any nearer the Kingdom of God than if they had never heard of the teachings?
Chase apparently did not understand that Abramson was asking about a real situation; Chase said that it was inevitable that those who had received the Greatest Name would search for the spiritual blessings that had become available to them.
Abramson's fourth question addressed a passage in a prayer by Bahá'u'lláh that Kheiralla had given his pupils. In the prayer, one repeated the sentence "every time I try to mention Thee my dreadful sins and awful crimes prevent me." Abramson asked, what should one think or do if one had never committed a crime? Does the passage refer to crimes committed by one in one's previous incarnations? Chase replied that recourse to past incarnations was unnecessary because the passage referred to the sins that any person inevitably commits. Therefore it could apply to anyone.
Abramson's fifth question regarded the nature of the afterlife: does a departed soul have the privilege of visiting the earth to see his or her loved ones? Chase doubted that such a possibility would be a privilege; "not that they love their loved ones the less but that they may love Another One the more."
Abramson's five questions reflected well the mixture of teachings given by Kheiralla. There was a strong emphasis on the Bible and on the esoteric truth deemed important for the individual's spiritual development. Kheiralla said nothing about the Bahá'í mystical, spiritual, or social reform teachings; hence Thornton Chase and the other early American Bahá'ís were completely ignorant of those aspects of the Bahá'í Faith.
One question Abramson asked, almost as a postscript, reflected the early American Bahá'ís' interest in "metaphysical" teachings, that is, fascination with communication with the dead, study of hypnotism and associated techniques, and devotion to anything unusual or esoteric. He wondered whether "these Teachings assist us to develop psychic or occult powers latent within us?" Thornton Chase's reply was emphatic:
No! Those who seek these teachings for the purpose or with the hope, that they may thereby gain some occult powers wherewith to "astonish the natives," are not "Truth-seekers." The only object of the really honest and earnest seeker after the Truth, is the satisfaction of his soul-hunger. He seeks because he keenly feels his need, his own personal need. Whoever seeks from any other motive, is a "Thief and a robber" at heart.
Thornton added that "occult" powers were but "chaff in the wind" compared with the spiritual powers that were accessible to the true believer. His reply reflects his own search and the power of his own "soul-hunger," a deeply felt spiritual yearning that the Bahá'í Faith had satisfied.
In a letter to Purley M. Blake, Thornton makes a similar statement:
Can anything partake more of the character of "moonbeams and superstition" than miracles, supernaturalism and the doctrines founded upon them? They will not bear the light of day: Before clear, cool, untrammeled. . . reason, they fade out of sight. . . . Faith is the EVIDENCE of things unseen, not as usually stated "the evidence of things UNSEEN.["]
Both of Thornton's replies bear on an issue that eventually became crucial: Is the Bahá'í Faith a transcendent, monotheistic religion with a revelation from God, which implies the necessity of obedience and faith, or is it a set of wise teachings, some of which one can accept and some of which one can reject according to one's own ideas? It is a question of where the focus is to be placed: on God or on the individual. The Bahá'í writings very clearly proclaim their divine origin, but the implications of this claim--faith and obedience--were not completely clear to the Bahá'í community until the 1920s. In the 1890s very few Bahá'í teachings and even fewer Bahá'í writings were available in North America, but the claim of the Bahá'í Faith to possess a divine revelation, nevertheless, was understood by a few Bahá'ís. Thornton was one of them.
One point in particular separated Kheiralla's teachings from those of other religions and philosophies: faith in Bahá'u'lláh and in His son, `Abdu'l-Bahá. Kheiralla taught that `Abdu'l-Bahá was the return of Christ--contrary to Bahá'í scripture, which says that Bahá'u'lláh is the return of Christ--consequently, the American Bahá'ís yearned to contact `Abdu'l-Bahá. But in 1898 no American had gone to the Holy Land to meet `Abdu'l-Bahá, and for an unknown reason no letters from `Abdu'l-Bahá had been received by Americans. Contact with `Abdu'l-Bahá was nonexistent, hence Kheiralla--who claimed to be the official Bahá'í teacher in North America, even though he had received no such authorization-- represented `Abdu'l-Bahá's authority.
In the spring of 1898 Ibrahim Kheiralla's Bahá'í friend Anton Haddad returned to the United States, and he stopped first in Akka to meet `Abdu'l-Bahá. Chase, in his letter to Abramson, described what Haddad had told the New York Bahá'ís about `Abdu'l-Bahá:
In reply to your Question as to what the Christ is doing today, I will say that I am informed by a credible eye-witness, who had the great privilege to be received within the circle at the headquarters very recently, that He is devoting Himself unsparingly to instruction, to deeds of kindness and especially to helping the down-trodden and unfortunate. He is so besieged by hungry souls that He scarcely permits Himself to sleep, taking but little in any night and often going without sleep all night in order to give the food of life to those who crowd upon Him. He is "A Most Lovely One" and is the personification of sweetness and goodwill. Yet He is greatly feared and obsequiously honored by all who know Him or of Him and who are not in the knowledge of the Truth. By the "Believers" He is ardently loved and honored. He is a "Lion" in majesty and power, and a "Christ" in loveliness, knowledge and sympathy with mankind.
Devotion to the figure of `Abdu'l-Bahá, such as described above, was a key characteristic of those nineteenth-century Americans who had accepted the Bahá'í religion.
With the establishment of contact with `Abdu'l-Bahá, the Americans' devotion could be directed toward a real person, instead of being vicariously directed to `Abdu'l-Bahá through Ibrahim Kheiralla. It was a momentous shift in the North American Bahá'í community and a momentous shift for Ibrahim Kheiralla.
Eleanor Chase's interest in Christian Science and her insistence that she is not a Bahá'í are mentioned in Chase to Ida A. Finch (copy), 16 September 1908, 3, TC. Her opposition to Chase's involvement is alluded to in Chase to Harlan Ober (copy), 28 November 1909, TC.
Thornton Chase to Ida Finch (copy), 16 September 1908, 3, TC.
Ibrahim Kheiralla, "The Three Questions" (n.p., ) 23.
Thornton Chase to Myron H. Phelps (copy), 19 December 1903, TC.
A description of the works that Kheiralla cited may be found in Robert H. Stockman, The Bahá'í Faith in America, Origins, 1892-1900, volume one (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1985) 40-47, and n. 5 on p. 210.
Edward Getsinger, in handwritten notes he wrote on the back of his pilgrim's notes, titled "About Daniel and John Returning in their reflected Personality: Table Talk at Acca with Abdul Baha, Dec. 1899 ," TS, Albert R. Windust Papers, National Bahá'í Archives.
The life of Kate Ives, and the creation of a Chicago Bahá'í community, are described in Stockman, Bahá'í Faith in America, Origins 36-40, 85-86.
For a detailed description of Kheiralla's teachings, see Stockman, Bahá'í Faith in America, Origins 48-84.
Chicago membership lists, ca. 1897-1903, CHS. This period of Chicago Bahá'í history is summarized in Stockman, Bahá'í Faith in America, Origins 85-86.
Ibrahim G. Kheiralla, Za-ti-et Al-lah: The Identity and the Personality of God (n. p., 1896). Its contents are summarized in Stockman, Bahá'í Faith in America, Origins 48-53.
The editing of Kheiralla's book Behá Ullah is described in Stockman, Bahá'í Faith in America, Origins 140.
Ibrahim G. Kheiralla, Bab-ed-Din; The Door of True Religion (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr and Co., 1897). Its contents are summarized in Stockman, Bahá'í Faith in America, Origins 53-58.
Viola Tuttle et al., "Part of the Baha'i History of the Family of Charles and Maria Ioas," TS, p. 5, author's personal papers.
Oscar Greenleaf signed a probate form in Hampden County Probate Court; a photocopy is in the author's personal papers. That Chase taught the Faith to the Greenleafs is confirmed in Charlotte D. Orlick to Mrs. Robley (copy), n.d., author's personal papers. For biographical information on Greenleaf, see Stockman, The Bahá'í Faith in America, Origins 4-5.
The establishment of the Bahá'í Faith in Cincinnati is detailed in Stockman, The Bahá'í Faith in America, Origins 132-34.
"Copy of letter from his brother to John J. Abramson," 15 October 1897, TC; "Copy of letter # 2," 9 November 1897, TC; "Letter # 3," 15 December 1897, TC.
John J. Abramson to Thornton Chase, 21 March 1898, 1, TC; Thornton Chase to John J. Abramson (copy), 13 April 1898, 1, TC.
John J. Abramson to Thornton Chase, 21 March 1898, 1, TC.
Thornton Chase to John J. Abramson (copy), 13 April 1898, 2-3, TC.
Thornton Chase to P. M. Blake (copy), 18 November 1899, TC.
Thornton Chase to P. M. Blake (copy), 24 January 1900, TC.
For example, Thornton Chase to P. M. Blake (copy), 27 October 1899, TC.
Thornton Chase, The Serpent (n.p., n.d.). It is first mentioned in Anton Haddad to Helen Goodall, 13 April 1900, Helen Goodall Papers, National Bahá'í Archives.
John J. Abramson to Thornton Chase, 21 March 1898, 1, TC.
Thornton Chase to John J. Abramson (copy), 13 April 1898, 4, TC.
John J. Abramson to Thornton Chase, 21 March 1898, 2, TC; Thornton Chase to John J. Abramson (copy), 13 April 1898, 4-5, TC.
John J. Abramson to Thornton Chase, 21 March 1898, 2, TC; Thornton Chase to John J. Abramson (copy), 13 April 1898, 5, TC.
John J. Abramson to Thornton Chase, 21 March 1898, 3, TC; Thornton Chase to John J. Abramson (copy), 13 April 1898, 5-6, TC.
Thornton Chase to P. M. Blake (copy), 27 October 1899, 3, TC. The quotation comes from Hebrews 11:1.
Thornton Chase to John J. Abramson (copy), 13 April 1898, 6, TC.