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Love's Odyssey:
The Life of Thornton Chase

by Robert Stockman

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Chapter 1

Chapter One


      On the morning of Sunday, 26 September 1909, the Chicago Bahá'ís gathered for their weekly worship service at the Corinthian Hall of the Masonic Temple in downtown Chicago. The Bahá'í Faith does not normally hold Sunday services, but the Chicago Bahá'ís, used to weekly worship in their former churches, had devised a service in 1903 that consisted of a mixture of Protestant and Bahá'í features. That day's service was probably typical for the Chicago Bahá'í community. Thornton Chase began the program by uttering the words from Habbakuk 2:20, which were often used at the beginning of Protestant services: "The Lord is in His Holy Temple. Let all the earth keep silence before Him."[1] The program that followed included readings from the Bahá'í scriptures and the Bible and the singing of hymns, both Bahá'í and Protestant, with piano accompaniment. The highlight of the gathering was a talk, given, as usual, by Thornton Chase. The program of 26 September 1909 was noteworthy, however, because the talk was the last Chase would ever give in Chicago. Within a week he would leave the city where he had lived over fifteen years for Los Angeles, because the company for which he worked had forced him to relocate. Chase had been the mainspring of the Chicago Bahá'í community since its establishment in 1894. Thus the gathering was a sad one.

      Thornton Chase rose and moved to the front of the room to deliver his talk. He was an extremely impressive man in two ways. First, physically: he was six feet, one and a half inches tall and weighed over 260 pounds.[2] To his size was added the distinction of age: he was sixty-two years old, with white hair and a large, bushy, white moustache. Second, spiritually: apparently Chase had a countenance that radiated a fatherly love, a patience with others, and an openness to others that was palpable. As Juanita Storch, who met Thornton Chase when she was a teenager, recalled, "He carried the Bahá'í spirit better than anyone else I met in those days. . . . every inch of him had a radiance."[3]

      We cannot know what Thornton Chase felt as he looked out over his audience of about a hundred Chicago Bahá'ís and their friends, but both sadness and joy are likely to have been present. Sadness because of Chase's imminent departure from the community that had consumed so much of his energy and love for the previous decade and a half; and joy for what the community, the oldest, largest, and most important Bahá'í community in North America, had become. In June, 1894, he had attended the first Bahá'í meeting in Chicago, and was one of the first converts. In the years since he had watched others convert, one by one; had personally introduced some of them to the Bahá'í Faith; and had explained its teachings to most of them. He had helped to organize the Chicago Bahá'í community and in 1901 had been one of the men who had established the House of Spirituality, the community's governing body and for many years the most important Bahá'í administrative institution in North America. He had been the community's principal leader and guiding force. He had participated in every major decision of the Chicago Bahá'ís and in fact had often proposed the courses of action that were finally adopted. He was one of the reasons that Chicago had emerged as the leader of the Bahá'ís of the Western world. He had personally advised many of the Bahá'ís present; had often supervised the funerals of their loved ones; had attended their weddings. Leaving such a group of people must have been very difficult, for he loved them and was intimately bound up with their lives.

      We know what Chase said on that day because he preferred never to speak extemporaneously; Thornton Chase always wrote out his talks beforehand, then edited and typed the talks. The words read much like a farewell address, for Chase summarized the themes that the Chicago Bahá'ís heard him stress repeatedly in his talks, conversations, and letters.

      He began by emphasizing that the Bahá'í teachings were divine revelation. Such an idea seems simple enough, but the opening sentences of the address make it clear that some saw the Bahá'í Faith otherwise: "The Bahai Revelation does not spring out of the human concept of God. It is not a mystical cult, not a psychological problem, not an Oriental philosophy, not a religious fad."[4] Chase was attempting to correct the views of many Chicago Bahá'ís in the audience, not just the ideas of their non-Bahá'í friends. Chase saw one of the major problems faced by the American Bahá'í community as the unwillingness of its own members to take its teachings seriously. Rather, many American Bahá'ís retained the metaphysical and spiritual beliefs that they had held before they had heard of Bahá'u'lláh, prophet-founder of the Bahá'í religion, and they ignored Bahá'u'lláh's teachings when these contradicted their own previous beliefs. Much of Chase's effort to teach the Bahá'í Faith, over the previous fifteen years, had been directed against this problem. His willingness to shed whatever opinions he had formed himself in favor of the Word was extraordinary; it reflected the depth and quality of his faith. Because of Chase's faith, the leader of the Bahá'í religion at that time--`Abdu'l-Bahá--had given him the title of thábit, steadfast, one of the most exalted stations to which a Bahá'í could ever attain.

      Chase quickly moved on to his second perennial theme, the nature of true religion. His definition, which reflected his       own mystical experience, in places resembles that of modern existentialism, although that movement did not yet exist, nor had any of the writings of its founding father, Søren Kierkegaard, been translated into English. Chase explained that

religion is living, doing, being, not imaginations and superstitions. It does not consist in happiness, exaltations or ecstasies, although they result from its practice. It is not of the past nor future, but now. The past is only valuable for the lessons we gain from it; the future can only be the result of the now. It matters not so much from whence we came or whither we go, as WHAT WE ARE. The star gleaming in the heavens needs not to look backwards over its track nor forward to its pathway; its business is to shine. . . .

Chase added to this an implied criticism of St. Paul and his stress on faith alone: "Religion is faith and works, not faith alone; it is to be, to live, to do, to serve, to be of use."[5] He elaborated his view with a statement that could almost be a summary of the Bahá'í vision of walking the mystical path with practical feet:

      This is a working universe, not a dreaming one. The true vision is that of the truth of service, to be a factor in the hand of God for making existence happier. . . . Unity signifies mutual service, mutual aid, mutual giving, not personal receiving. A cup must empty itself before it can receive more; if it retains just what it has, its contents become stagnant, worthless.[6]

      Chase's vision of life was of something in motion as well as in interaction:

      The law of existence is change. It is the means of growth, the continuance of life. Life is not a something given to be permanent, changeless, but rather a constant inflowing and outflowing. If we receive it and give it not forth as it comes to us, we will find it to be death, not life. It is action, movement, living. Let us walk in the Light of this Great Revelation and spend our lives in living.[7]

      Such a vision of life was quite different from that held in the northern Baptist church in which Chase had been reared. There, the stress was on the conversion experience, the sudden change of heart toward Christ, not on a steady growth of the soul. Of course, evangelical Protestantism had greatly changed since Thornton Chase's birth in 1847. Even when he was a youth, the more liberal-minded clergy had spoken of the Christian life in terms of growth and gradual change, and since the turn of the century such language had become common. Where had Chase acquired his understanding of life and religion, two terms that were virtually synonymous for him? From his Protestant background? From mystical writers, like Ralph Waldo Emerson? From the Bahá'í sacred writings? From his personal experience? Chase's emphasis on revelation in his talk of October, 1909, demonstrates that his religious perspectives are based primarily on statements in the Bahá'í scriptures. But his understanding of the scriptures, inevitably, was influenced by his own diverse and difficult life experiences, and by his reading--of the Christian philosopher-mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, of world religions, of alternative religious systems like Theosophy, of liberal Protestantism, and probably of Transcendentalists and Romantics like Emerson.

      Thornton Chase then focused his talk on the Bahá'í scriptures and the evidence of their sacredness. His approach was an ancient one, used to prove the truths of Christianity by the Christians of the first centuries as well as by American clergy before the Civil War. Chase, like his Baptist forebears, saw a connection between prophecy and the events of the day:

      He [Bahá'u'lláh] requires the mutual acquaintance and helpfulness, the brotherhood of all peoples, and at once appear the means of rapid communication and transportation to connect all the lands and waters of the earth, so that it shall indeed "become as one home" for all His children. All of these swift coming evolutions of this time of change from an old earth to the new are unquestionably the direct result of the commands of God and the revealings of His spirit to the searchers for Truth through the means of scientific discoveries.[8]

      Protestant contemporaries of Chase saw the same changes as divinely inspired developments that would make possible the conquest of the world for Christ. Chase, however, did not share the ebullient optimism of his Christian peers, many of whom felt that humanity had so matured that war was now impossible. Chase, on the contrary, saw considerable war in humanity's future, and offered a vision of how it would cease that in retrospect appears to be a prophetic: "He [Bahá'u'lláh] foretells the end of war and His prophecy shall find its fulfillment through the disclosure of such means of wholesale destruction that man shall stand appalled at the prospect of war."[9] Chase's Bahá'í friends may have found such a statement puzzling, in the optimistic environment of the United States before World War I.

      Thornton Chase concluded his talk by turning to the impact that the Word of God can have on the individual who listens to it:

. . . he finds his soul uplifted and brought into the very presence of its Creator. He recognizes the nearness of God, the divine care of the Father for himself and the overshadowing protection and guidance of Infinite Love and Wisdom, which controls the universe and also holds his own life in its close embrace. He is consciously in the arms of safety; he has no fear, no doubt; perfect love has cast out fear. He has only a perfect assurance[,] a reliable faith, a sure hope, an abiding joy, peace and happiness in the realized Kingdom of Heaven on earth.

      This is the meaning of the Bahai Revelation.[10]

      Such words bespeak Chase's personal religious experience. Thornton Chase had lived religion; as a result he had experienced the assurance, faith, hope, and joy of which he spoke. These qualities were the product of Chase's lifetime of growth, change, and spiritual development. What preparation made such a life possible? And what sort of life had it been? The examination of these questions reveals the connection between Chase's words and his experience, and delineates the example of one man's spiritual odyssey.


[1]Sophie Loeding, interview with author, 9 July 1982, supplement page, author's personal papers. I am indebted to John Walbridge for identifying the biblical quotation and noting that it is often used to begin Episcopal services.

[2]Chase's height comes from the questionnaire he filled out on 17 March 1909 for his Veteran's Pension (United States Federal Archives, Washington, D.C.). His weight is given in Arthur Agnew to Andrew J. Nelson, 3 August 1902, Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Racine, Wisconsin, Records, National Bahá'í Archives, Wilmette, Illinois.

[3]Telephone Interview with Juanita Storch, 7 August 1982, notes in Robert H. Stockman, Thornton Chase Research Notebook, p. 15.3, author's personal papers.

[4]"Address given by Mr. Thornton Chase Sunday, Sept. 26, 1909, Corinthian Hall, Masonic Temple, Chicago, Ill.," Green Acre Bahá'í School Library, Eliot, Maine.

[5]Address, Sept. 26, 1909, 2.

[6]Address, Sept. 26, 1909, 2, 3.

[7]Address, Spet. 26, 1909, 3.

[8]Address, Sept. 26, 1909, 6.

[9]Address, Sept. 26, 1909, 6.

[10]Address, Sept. 26, 1909, 7.

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