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Love's Odyssey:
The Life of Thornton Chase

by Robert Stockman

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Chapter 11

Chapter Eleven


      In 1893, the year he turned forty-six, Thornton Chase received a very important promotion in the Union Mutual Life Insurance Company. He was made a superintendent of agencies, a position that made Chase one of the company's most important officers. Like most American corporations, Union Mutual had a board of directors that set company policy and made major decisions. The board consisted of a half-dozen prominent political and business leaders in Portland, Maine, where the company was headquartered, plus the company's six major officers: the president, vice-president, solicitor, secretary, actuary, and medical director. Beneath the six, came two officers in the field department, Thornton Chase and Edson Scofield. Both men were superintendents of agencies; Scofield was based in New York and handled the East Coast, while Chase was based in Chicago and handled the rest of the country. Both men probably reported directly to the vice-president.[1]

      Thornton Chase was now the seventh or eighth most important officer in a company with assets of six and a half million dollars. His salary, it is reported, was $750 per month.[2] He was young enough to anticipate the possibility of promotion to vice-president or even president. He had finally achieved considerable material success.

      The new job required considerable travel because Thornton had to visit the agencies to brief them about company policy, evaluate their performance, and oversee their management of company investments. He also had to relocate from California to Chicago. One advantage of the move was that he was now only a thousand miles from New England, instead of three thousand, and occasionally he had to visit the company's headquarters. Thornton had probably not seen his two daughters since he went West almost twenty years earlier, and he probably had not visited Springfield either. Time had been ample for scars to heal. He could return as a successful man with a loving and close family. Some time in the early 1890s Thornton visited Springfield and effected a reconciliation with his stepmother, as photographs of his son as a young boy in the "Chase villa" in Springfield indicate. Thereafter the Chases visited Springfield annually; photographs of parties and plays held at the "Chase villa" show that good times were often had there.

      At some point Thornton visited Newport as well. However, his success there was much more limited. On 30 April 1895 Sarah, his older daughter, married Charles Engs Lawton of Newport. Afterward Thornton was able to have very little contact with Sarah. In February 1896 Edward Wing Lawton, Charles and Sarah's first child and Thornton's first grandchild, was born. Eventually Sarah had four more children: Frances (August 1897), Richard (September 1899), Charles (April 1903), and Margaret (May 1904). Thornton is not known to have visited the Lawton household after the birth of the grandchildren; none of the grandchildren ever met him. It is unlikely he could have visited Jessamine because she lived with Annie. However, Thornton was in correspondence with Jessamine, probably with Sarah, and with Alfred Langley, a Brown alumnus and close friend of Sarah and Jessamine.[3]

      Chicago had changed considerably since Chase had lived there in 1875. The population of the city had grown from about a third of a million to over one million.[4] A great diversity of people inhabited the city; in 1890 seventy-eight percent of the population was of foreign birth or parentage. The largest ethnic groups were, in descending order, Germans, Scandinavians, Irish, British (English, Scottish, and Welsh), and Canadians; immigration of Poles, Italians, Bohemians (Czechs), Slovaks, and Eastern European Jews was just beginning, noticeably shifting the city's character. Many fashionable neighborhoods existed, compared to the city just after the fire.

      Chicago in 1890 was America's second largest manufacturing center. By virtue of its unique transportation system--the rail lines of the central United States all converged on Chicago, and its canal connected the Mississippi River to the Great Lakes--the city was the hub of the movement of goods for much of the country. Agricultural produce--wheat, corn, hogs, cattle--all converged there for processing and shipment to its final destination. It was not a coincidence that Sears--whose catalogue brought all the civilized refinements of life to a rural America, including prefabricated houses--had its headquarters in Chicago.[5]

      To celebrate its growth to America's second largest city, Chicago hosted the Columbian Exposition in 1893, a world's fair to commemorate the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the new world. Millions flocked to Chicago to see the fair, which celebrated American technology and the American way of life. Part of the fair was a series of conferences, including one on religion. Titled the World's Parliament of Religions, it was held from 11 to 27 September 1893; tens of thousands attended its sessions, and it received extensive newspaper coverage. Almost two-hundred people gave talks about religion. Although evangelical Protestants dominated the proceedings and sought to use the forum as an opportunity to demonstrate the superiority of their beliefs, a few prominent Hindus and Buddhists also attended. The beliefs they advocated--and their criticism of Protestantism--received widespread attention.[6]

      Thornton Chase never says whether he attended the World's Parliament of Religions. It is a reasonable assumption that if he was in Chicago at the time Chase would have attended at least one or two of its sessions, but it is possible that he was on the road instead. Thornton's typical pattern, in later years, was to take a month-long vacation in New England during the month of August, visiting company headquarters in Maine; return to Chicago; and start a lengthy business trip in mid- or late September, which often took him to the West Coast. It is possible that Thornton was absent while the historic conference occurred in his home city.

      But considering Thornton's devotion to world religions, he must have at least followed the newspaper accounts of the Parliament. On 23 September a paper by the Reverend Henry H. Jessup, D.D., director of Presbyterian Missionary Operations in northern Syria, was read. Titled "The Religious Mission of the English Speaking Nations," it described the social, political, moral, and religious superiority of the Anglo-Saxon "race" and its God-given mandate to Christianize humanity. Jessup closed his paper by quoting Bahá'u'lláh, prophet-founder of the Bahá'í Faith:

      In the palace of Behjeh, or Delight, just outside the fortress of Acre, on the Syrian coast, there died a few months since a famous Persian sage, the Babi Saint, named Behâ Allah--the "Glory of God"--the head of a vast reform party of Persian Moslems, who accept the New Testament as the Word of God and Christ as the deliverer of men, who regard all nations as one, and all men as brothers. Three years ago he was visited by a Cambridge scholar and gave utterances to sentiments so noble, so Christ-like, that we repeat them as our closing words:

      "That all nations should become one in faith and all men as brothers; that the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened; that diversity of religion should cease and differences of race be annulled; what harm is there in this? Yet so it shall be. These fruitless strifes, these ruinous wars shall pass away, and the `Most Great Peace' shall come. Do not you in Europe need this also? Let not a man glory in this, that he loves his country; let him rather glory in this, that he loves his kind."[7]

      Jessup provided no reason why he quoted Bahá'u'lláh other than the "Christ-like" quality of Bahá'u'lláh's words; they must have impressed him as examples of Jesus Christ's mysterious work in other cultures, for his quotation of Bahá'u'lláh bore no obvious connection to the rest of his paper. According to John Bosch, a later friend of Thornton Chase, Chase saw or read Jessup's talk and was impressed by Bahá'u'lláh's words as well. He decided to investigate the Bahá'í Faith and searched libraries for information. Chase seems to confirm that he investigated the Bahá'í Faith first through books when he says in a letter that "before any American had found" `Abdu'l-Bahá, he dreamed of meeting `Abdu'l-Bahá.[8]

      Information should not have been difficult to find in a large public library. Edward G. Browne, a Cambridge University professor of Iranian literature, had become fascinated with the Bahá'í religion and with its antecedent movement, the Bábí Faith, when he visited Iran in 1887-88. About one quarter of his classic travelogue, A Year Amongst the Persians (1893), describes his meetings with the Bahá'ís of Iran and his discussions of religion with them. Browne summarized all the information he had acquired on the Bahá'í Faith in two articles, published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1889. The two articles, totalling 169 pages of text, describe most of the major works by Bahá'u'lláh, as well as giving a thorough account of Bahá'í history and a fairly good summary of Bahá'í teachings. Browne also acquired many manuscripts on his visit to Iran, and he translated and published two histories: A Traveler's Narrative Written to Illustrate the Episode of the Báb, by `Abdu'l-Bahá (1891), and The Táríkh-i-Jadíd or New History of Mírzá `Alí Muammad the Báb, by Mírzá useyn of Hamadán (1893). Browne's fifty-page introduction to the Traveler's Narrative included the description of Bahá'u'lláh that Jessup had quoted. As a result of these four works, almost a thousand pages of information on the Bahá'í Faith was available to those who were interested in studying it.[9]

      Presumably Chase began to read about Bahá'u'lláh and the Bahá'í Faith. However, within a year the opportunity to learn of the Bahá'í Faith first-hand from a believer presented itself. According to another friend of Thornton Chase, Carl Scheffler, the opportunity arose in the following manner:

While writing a poem about God one day he [Chase] was interrupted by the visit of a business acquaintance who expressed an interest in his activity, perhaps because he was so busy typing. Mr. Chase read a portion of what he was writing and he was astonished when his friend told him that he had recently come upon a man who had declared that God had "walked upon the earth." Immediately Mr. Chase expressed interest and asked to be conducted to this person.[10]

      Scheffler adds that he thinks the business acquaintance was named William James, who was a thirty-six-year-old Chicago grain broker. The man whom James had recently come upon was Ibrahim Kheiralla (1849-1929). Chase, in a short essay on the history of the Bahá'í Faith in America that he wrote, said that he heard of Kheiralla in the month of June 1894. At the time he was seeking someone to teach him Sanskrit; instead, he encountered a Bahá'í.[11]

      The individual who taught Chase the Faith was born near Beirut, in modern Lebanon. Kheiralla had been raised a Christian and had graduated from the Syrian Protestant College in Beirut. In 1888, while living in Cairo, he met a Persian Bahá'í merchant who resided in that city. Kheiralla began to investigate the Bahá'í Faith by asking the Persian questions and by studying the Bible. Bahá'ís believe that Bahá'u'lláh is the fulfillment of many of the prophecies of the Bible, and the more Kheiralla studied, the more convinced he, too, became. He was not able to read very much of the writings of Bahá'u'lláh because most of the ones available from the Persian Bahá'ís of Cairo were written in Persian, a language Kheiralla did not know. Partly as a result, Kheiralla's Bible study assumed central importance in his investigation of the Bahá'í Faith. He came to many conclusions about Bahá'u'lláh and the Bahá'í Faith as a result of his reading of the Bible, conclusions that often bore little resemblence to Bahá'í beliefs. It is not known to what extent he communicated his interpretations to the Persian Bahá'ís. In 1890 Ibrahim Kheiralla become a Bahá'í.[12]

      Two years later he determined to travel to Europe, for he had designed and patented several inventions that he wanted to sell. He left Cairo about 9 June 1892, bound for Russia. Two weeks earlier Bahá'u'lláh had died. The Bahá'í community was plunged into grief; before Kheiralla departed for Europe, however, he heard that `Abdu'l-Bahá (1844-1921), Bahá'u'lláh's oldest son, had been appointed by Bahá'u'lláh as successive head of the religion.

      Kheiralla was unable to sell his invention in Russia or Germany. A friend had attempted to sell another of Kheiralla's inventions in the United States and had also failed; consequently, Kheiralla came to America to assist him, arriving in New York on 20 December 1892. Kheiralla was never able to sell any of his inventions, but he soon learned that he could earn a living by selling Oriental merchandise. In late 1893 he traveled as far west as Michigan, lecturing about the Middle East and selling goods. In February 1894 he settled in Chicago.

      About the time Kheiralla settled in Chicago, he discovered a new way of earning money: he opened a healing practice. Kheiralla believed he had healing powers and sought to exercise them through the laying on of hands, prayer with the patient, and having the patient smoke a hubble-bubble (water-pipe). He charged two dollars for each visit. Since many of his patients were interested in alternative religious movements, Kheiralla began to tell them about his religious ideas. Religion attracted patients, and the healing practice attracted religious seekers.

      James was the first person attracted to the new religion. During the spring of 1894, three others also became interested in the Bahá'í Faith. One was Marion Miller, born in England about 1860. Another was Edward Dennis, an Indiana native who operated a small Chicago business. The last was Thornton Chase.

      Thornton consistently mentions one date in connection with his investigation of the Bahá'í Faith: Tuesday, 5 June 1894. On that day, he says, he "learned of the Blessed Manifestation [Bahá'u'lláh]" and "first heard the Glad Tidings of this Revelation." He calls it the "very beginning" of the Bahá'í Faith in America.[13] He is not specific about what occurred on that day, but there are three possibilities. Chase may be referring to the day that James told him of Kheiralla. This seems unlikely, however, because James had already heard of the Faith; thus that day, strictly speaking, was not the "very beginning" of the Bahá'í Faith in America. Chase might be referring to the time when the four Americans all accepted Bahá'u'lláh. But this seems unlikely because records in the national Bahá'í archives suggest that Chase and Dennis were not formally accepted as Bahá'ís until 1895.

      Most likely, 5 June 1894 represents the first day that the four Americans met with Ibrahim Kheiralla to study the Bahá'í Faith together. Kheiralla says that after he arrived in Chicago, he "began to preach the Appearance of the Father [Bahá'u'lláh] and the establishment of His Kingdom on earth." This probably represents the content of his first talks and agrees nicely with Chase's description of what happened on 5 June. Kheiralla adds that "it was hard work for me to make the Americans understand my deficient speech."[14] James, Miller, Dennis, and Chase were Kheiralla's first pupils; consequently, they received his teachings in their least organized and most tentative form. Nevertheless, Thornton was impressed:

      As the statements of the life and teachings of BAHA'O'LLAH, and his son, Abbas Effendi, the "Greatest Branch," otherwise known as Abdul-Baha, 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.[15]

      Thornton's religious search, up to this point, apparently had not focused on biblical prophecy. His poetry used mystical imagery from the Bible, but not its prophetic passages. Study of Hinduism, Buddhism, Theosophy, or hynotism would not have entailed much attention to prophecy either. However, prophecy was an extremely important part of evangelical Protestantism. Preachers of Samuel Francis Smith's generation defended the validity of the New Testament narrative based on Christ's miracles and the prophecies Christ fulfilled. Some years before Thornton was born, a New York farmer named William Miller had predicted that Christ would return in 1843 or 1844; first Miller was a sensation in America, then the nation's laughing-stock. In the 1890s many former Millerites were still alive; Chase had undoubtedly met some. The late nineteenth century saw the founding of annual conferences to discuss interpretations of prophecy. Swedenborg had interpreted prophecies, and Chase must have read about them just a decade earlier. Biblical prophecy was such a prominent aspect of American culture that one can be sure that Thornton Chase was exposed to it, and the suggestion that prophecy was now fulfilled would have been highly significant to him.

      Thornton began to study prophecy. He bought a new Bible and cut it up with scissors, pasting the prophetic passages on long sheets of paper. He entitled the study "Prophecies of the New Day."[16] Over the next decade, Bahá'u'lláh's writings being largely unavailable in English, Thornton Chase and the other early American Bahá'ís studied the Bible, which perforce served as the first scripture of the American Bahá'í community.

      We do not know about the process whereby Chase became convinced that he had finally found the truth for which he had searched so long. The process took at least six months, for he is not listed as becoming a Bahá'í until 1895. Whether the delay resulted from his extensive business travels--the San Francisco city directory continued to list Thornton Chase as having an office in the city until 1896--or resulted from Chase's caution cannot be determined.[17]

      Perhaps Thornton's conversion experience coincided with a new stage in his spiritual development, the one described by Bahá'u'lláh as the "Valley of Knowledge." In this, the third mystical level of growth, the seeker will "come out of doubt into certitude, and turn from the darkness of illusion to the guiding light of the fear of God. . . he will set ajar the gate of truth and piety, and shut the doors of vain imaginings."[18] Although Thornton would have doubts and fears in the future, and a few vain imaginings as well, he had given his faith to Bahá'u'lláh, whom he recognized as God's newest messenger. The commitment of his faith was one of the most decisive steps in his life.

      By 1896 or 1897 Kheiralla had created a unique process for recognizing those who had accepted Bahá'u'lláh; they were "given the Greatest Name." The process may date back to 1894 or 1895. Islamic tradition maintains that God has one-hundred "names," or principal attributes, ninety-nine of which were revealed in the Qur'án. The one-hundredth or "greatest" name would be revealed in the latter days. Bahá'u'lláh said that the Greatest Name was bahá--which in Arabic means glory, light, or splendor--and its superlative form abhá, or "most glorious." The name was used in various forms. Alláh-u-Abhá, "God is most glorious," was used by Bahá'ís as a greeting to each other and as a prayer. Another form, Yá-Bahá'u'l-Abhá, "O Glory of the Most Glorious," was used as a prayer and as a pious expression. Bahá'u'lláh, "the glory of God," is another form, as is Bahá'í, "follower of Bahá."

      Kheiralla taught the new believers about the Greatest Name and its proper use. He instilled them with such respect for it that they hesitated ever to use it in public, or even in a gathering of believers.[19] The term Bahá'í was not used at all; "Beha'ist" was preferred among the believers, and "truth seeker" when Kheiralla's lessons or pupils were mentioned to others.

      About 1895 the Chicago "Beha'ists" purchased a seal with the legend "First Assembly of Beha'ists in America * Chicago * 1895."[20] By "assembly" they referred to their community, for until about 1920 "assembly" was the preferred term for the entire body of Bahá'ís in a locality. Thornton now had a new identity and belonged to a new religion. The despair he had felt in the course of his search was replaced with the joy of discovery, and the challenge of searching was replaced by the challenge of serving the new religion and its fledgling community.


[1]The Union Mutual, vol. 16, no. 1 (Jan. 1894), photocopy of last page in author's personal papers; Sandra H. Shryock [archivist of Union Mutual] to the author, 18 November 1982, author's personal papers.

[2]The Union Mutual, vol. 16, no. 1 (Jan. 1894), last page; O. Z. Whitehead, Some Early Bahá'ís of the West (Oxford: George Ronald, 1976) 5.

[3]Marriage record of Sarah Thornton Chase and Charles E. Lawton, Newport, R.I. City Clerk's office, notes in Robert H. Stockman, Thornton Chase Research Notebook, p. 8.2, author's personal papers; birth records of the Lawton children, Newport, R.I., City Clerk's office, notes in Thornton Chase Research Notebook, p. 8.2; telephone interview with Charles Dudley Lawton, 23 May 1987, author's personal papers; telephone interview with Charles D. Lawton 22 May 1987, author's personal papers. (Note: Charles Dudley Lawton is the son of Charles and Sarah Lawton.)

[4]Compendium of the Eleventh Census: 1890. Part I.--Population (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1892) 434.

[5]An excellent summary of Chicago history may be found in Bessie Louise Pierce, A History of Chicago, volume 3, The Rise of the Modern City, 1871-1893 (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1957). The information I have used comes from pages 22, 24, 27, 31, 32, 38, 64, 65, 68-69, 92, 108, and 145-46.

[6]A summary of the World's Parliament of Religions can be found in Carl T. Jackson, The Oriental Religions and American Thought: Nineteenth Century Explorations (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981) 243-58.

[7]Henry H. Jessup, "The Religious Mission of the English Speaking Nations," in John Henry Barrows, ed., The World's Parliament of Religions (Chicago: Parliament Publishing Co., 1893) 1125-26. Jessup's quotation of Bahá'u'lláh comes from Edward G. Browne, "Introduction," in [`Abdu'l-Bahá], A Traveler's Narrative Written to Illustrate the Episode of the Báb, trans. Edward G. Browne, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1891), 2:xxxix-xl. Jessup did not reproduce the quotation exactly as Browne gave it; I have preserved Jessup's version because that is what Thornton Chase would have seen.

[8]John Bosch's account of Thornton Chase's conversion was repeated by him to Firuz Kazemzadeh in the 1940s. Dr. Kazemzadeh repeated it in a telephone interview with the author on 10 February 1982. The exact text of Dr. Kazemzadeh's recollection may be found in Robert H. Stockman, The Bahá'í Faith in America, Origins, 1892-1900, vol. 1 (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1985) 34. Chase's statement that he dreamed about meeting `Abdu'l-Bahá is made in Thornton Chase to `Abdu'l-Bahá (copy), 21 April 1905, TC.

[9]Edward Granville Browne, A Year Amongst the Persians: Impressions as to the Life, Character, and Thought of the People of Persa Received During Twelve Months' Residence in that Country in the Years 1887-1888, (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1984); Edward Granville Browne, "The Bábís of Persia. I. Sketch of their History, and Personal Experiences amongst them," Royal Asiatic Society's Journal 21 (July 1889): 485-526; Edward Granville Browne, "The Bábís of Persia. II. Their Literature and Doctrines," Royal Asiatic Society's Journal 21 (Oct. 1889): 881-1009; `Abdu'l-Bahá, A Traveler's Narrative Written to Illustrate the Episode of the Báb, trans. Edward G. Browne, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1891); Mírzá useyn of Hamadán, The Táríkh-i-Jadíd or New History of Mírzá `Alí Muammad the Báb, trans. Edward G. Browne (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1893). An important selection of some of these texts has recently appeared: Moojan Momen, ed., Selections from the Writings of E. G. Browne on the Bábí and Bahá'í Religions (Oxford: George Ronald, 1987). The work has extensive editorial notes and annotation using information from Browne's unpublished papers and information from the unpublished papers of the Persians whom he visited. The notes are valuable because Browne, to protect his sources, had to disguise their names, and these are now revealed. A short summary of the contents of Browne's works may be found in Stockman, Bahá'í Faith in America, Origins 43-46.

[10]Carl Scheffler, "Thornton Chase: First American Bahá'í," World Order 11 (Aug. 1945): 153.

[11]Thornton Chase, "A Brief History of the American Development of the Bahai Movement," Star of the West 5.17 (19 Jan. 1915): 263.

[12]Ibrahim Kheiralla's life is treated in considerable detail in Richard Hollinger, "Ibrahim George Kheiralla and the Bahá'í Faith in America," in Juan R. Cole and Moojan Momen, eds., Studies in Bábí and Bahá'í History, volume two: From Iran East and West (Los Angeles: Kalimát Press, 1984) 95-134, and in Stockman, The Bahá'í Faith in America, Origins 13-38.

[13]Chase to Mirza Moneer Zaine [Mírzá Munír Zayn] (copy), 9 June 1911, 2-3, TC; Chase to William Herrigel (copy), 5 May 1910, 2, TC; Chase to Charles Mason Remey (copy), 19 January 1910, 7, TC.

[14]Ibrahim Kheiralla, "Autobiography," in O Christians! Why do Ye Believe Not on Christ? (n.p., 1917) 167.

[15]Chase, "A Brief History" 263.

[16]Telephone interview with Helen Bishop, 1 August 1982, in Thornton Chase Research Notebook, pp. 37.6, 37.8, author's personal papers. The author has not seen the sheets of biblical prophecies in the Thornton Chase papers, but Helen Bishop recalls them when she helped John and Louise Bosch arrange the Thornton Chase papers many years ago. The sheets of biblical prophecies were not dated, but Bishop believed they dated back to the "very early days."

[17]"Supplication Book of Students in Chicago, Ill. from 1894 to [blank]," Bahá'í Membership List, United States, 1894-1900, microfilm collection K-4, National Bahá'í Archives, Wilmette, Ill.; Langley's San Francisco Directory For the Year Commencing April, 1894. 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 (San Francisco: George B. Wilbur, 1894) 355. Crocker-Langley San Francisco Directory for the Year Commencing April 1896 Containing An Alphabetical List of Business Firms and Private Citizens; a Directory of the City and County Officers, Churches, Public and Private Schools, Benevolent, Literary, and other Associations, Banks, Incorporated Institutions, etc, and a Complete Classified Business Directory, A Correct Map and an improved Street and Avenue Guide of the City, comp. H. S. Crocker Co. (San Francisco: H. S. Crocker, 1896) 392.

[18]Bahá'u'lláh, The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys, trans. Marzieh Gail (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1945) 11.

[19]Thornton Chase to Alfred Lunt (copy), 30 June 1906, 1, TC.

[20]A piece of paper with the impression of this seal may be found in TC; the seal itself is lost.

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