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Love's Odyssey:
The Life of Thornton Chase

by Robert Stockman

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Chapter 15

Chapter Fifteen


      With the resolution of the crises in Chicago, Thornton Chase had many new opportunities to serve the Bahá'í Faith. Soon he was the regular chairman of the Chicago Bahá'ís' Sunday worship service. The service included a short talk, which Chase usually delivered. He also devoted much of his energy to the House of Spirituality. The return of some of the dissident members to active membership caused temporary disunity, but by 1903 the House of Spirituality had learned to function well as a body. After May 1902 Chase was its regular temporary chairman (Greenleaf, still the official chairman, was absent from the sessions). When the body elected its officers in 1904, Chase became its permanent chairman.

      Undoubtedly much of the House's unity and success can be traced to Thornton's grasp of the Bahá'í concept of consultation. Mírzá Asadu'lláh had taught him about consultation, and as late as 1912 Thornton Chase was one of the few American Bahá'ís who used the word consultation frequently in correspondence or advocated its principles. In 1908 he described consultation as practiced by the House and stressed its effectiveness:

How beautiful is the method we have adopted, (under wise advice), in each case of difference of opinion, to go around the circle, asking each (without exception. Even the Chairman cannot escape), to state his ideas openly and clearly. And once in a great while we have had to go around the circle a second time, and, I think, never a third time that entire unanimity did not result, and the final decision the decision of all (excepting not one). Surely our results have been more sure and better in every way, than when we adhered to the "old style" of voting. "Consultation and kindness": These will solve all problems, if adhered to steadily.[1]

      Unanimity was a principal reason the House was effective. Another was organization. In the summer of 1904 the House drew up a constitution that defined and codified the procedures it had already adopted.[2]

      With unity and organization, the House of Spirituality emerged as the most important Bahá'í governing body in the Western world. The House shouldered the responsibility of coordinating the translation and distribution of virtually all North American correspondence with `Abdu'l-Bahá. It issued circular letters regularly to the North American Bahá'í communities to inform them of upcoming Holy Days and widely publicized the Bahá'í Fast. It advised Bahá'ís about teaching the Faith in their localities and about how to handle conflicts with other Bahá'ís. It received letters of inquiry about the Bahá'í Faith from all over the United States and coordinated the trips of traveling Bahá'í teachers. In short, by 1903 or 1904 the Chicago House of Spirituality functioned as a national, as well as a local, Bahá'í governing body.

      In recognition of its importance, the House decided on 5 July 1902 to authorize Thornton Chase to collect "Tablets, letters, and manuscripts connected with this Religion, so that they may be preserved intact for future reference."[3] This made Chicago the repository of the national Bahá'í archives as well and continued Thornton's role as community historian that had begun in 1899.

      Among the House's projects that soon acquired national importance was the construction of a Bahá'í House of Worship. The first one in the world was begun in November 1902 in `Ishqábád, a city in Russian central Asia. Mírzá Asadu'lláh wrote to Thornton Chase and the House of Spirituality about it, and on 7 March 1903 the House of Spirituality decided to build a House of Worship for Chicago.[4] Serious efforts to build the temple did not begin until 1907, but the scale of the project was so large that once begun, it became an international project and necessitated the creation of a coordinating body for all of the Bahá'ís in North America. The Bahai Temple Unity was established in 1909 and assumed the House of Spirituality's national coordinating efforts. Thenceforth, the House of Spirituality's responsibility was confined much more to Chicago matters.

      Publication was another major project of the House of Spirituality that was of national scale. As soon as writings of Bahá'u'lláh began to be translated into English, there arose a need for their systematic publication. Thornton Chase was the one who initiated the effort, in early 1900:

      At the [lunch] table one day Mr. Chase took out of his pocket a booklet and laid it on the table and said ["]what do you think of this? The most wonderful words ever given man, and the way it is gotten up [it] looks like an old rag." He had with him a typewritten copy of the Arabic Hidden Words, and said to me [Arthur Agnew], ["]You take this [and] see what you can do with it, see if you not dress it up as it should be.["] So we bought some type and Mr. [Albert] Windust set the style of the composition setting a few pages at a time, and we got out the Arabic Hidden Words.[5]

      After publishing the Hidden Words, the three men, with Frank Hoffman and Charles Greenleaf, organized the "Behais Supply and Publishing Board." Since all five members were eventually on the Chicago House of Justice, they consulted regularly with the House about publishing. In the Fall of 1902 the board was renamed the "Bahai Publishing Society" and was legally incorporated as a non-profit organization in Illinois. Because the House of Spirituality was not legally incorporated and therefore could not own a company, the Society was made the property of Agnew, Chase, Greenleaf, and Windust (Hoffman had by then withdrawn from its activities). Chase served as the editor who revised manuscripts; Agnew and Windust were printers who designed, typeset, and proofread the text; and Greenleaf, as an accountant, presumably managed the finances. By 1909 the Bahai Publishing Society had established itself as the undisputed leader in Bahá'í publishing; it produced forty percent of all Bahá'í publications that appeared in the United States and Europe between 1900 and 1912, double the number of its nearest competitor. As a result, it set the standards of quality and decided difficult matters, such as the proper spelling of Bahá'í terms. Today the organization still exists, although it has changed its name several times and is now called the Bahá'í Publishing Trust.

      Thornton Chase improved the translation of Bahá'í sacred texts both through editing and through tutoring the translators-- who were young Persians--in English. His effort helped to make it possible for some of the early translations to endure to this day. Carl Scheffler, a young protégé and close friend of Thornton, described his efforts at translation:

      I vividly recall an afternoon at. . . the headquarters of the Bahá'í Community. Mr. Chase was endeavoring to assist a young Persian (Ameen Fareed) in the first attempt to translate into English the [Persian] Hidden Words of Bahá'u'lláh. My part was, with the help of several dictionaries, to look up words or synonyms. The young Persian had some knowledge of English, but Thornton Chase's demands for words that might adequately express the meanings that were concealed in the Persian taxed him beyond his capacity. The translation that finally was obtained was, of course, only for our satisfaction. Mr. Chase had no idea of preparing it for general use, but his burning desire for the Words of Bahá'u'lláh and his readiness to understand the significance of the words as they were in a painfully painstaking manner translated, made a deep impression on my youthful consciousness.[6]

      To further his ability to edit translations, Thornton Chase took Persian lessons from Ameen Fareed. Chase's notes, preserved in the Thornton Chase Papers, reveal that he mastered the Persian alphabet and had acquired some basic vocabulary.

      As editor, Thornton Chase had to suggest changes to authors, a task often difficult or delicate. Thornton's remarkable ability to offer criticism lovingly comes through most clearly in a letter he wrote to Louise Waite in October, 1908, about several articles she had submitted to the Bahai Publishing Society. Thornton began the letter by stressing that "I have no `axe to grind' and only desire the truth, and especially that the utmost caution and wisdom shall be exercised," because misstatements about `Abdu'l-Bahá and the Bahá'í Faith by Americans had caused trouble in the Middle East. He also emphasized the importance to Bahá'ís of "CONSULTATION." He then carefully, clearly, and logically described several misleading statements in her articles, was cautious not to question her motives or even the accuracy of her beliefs, and praised the overall content of what she said.[7]

      Thornton then turned to the poetry she had submitted. Because he was dealing with a more subjective matter, he was even more kind and loving:

      I thank you for the copies of the poems. Their thoughts and expressions are both very beautiful. Once in long years agone I used to "dabble" a little in rhyme, and once in a while I find in your beautiful verse a little bit of halting in rhyme or meter, which I long to try with my weakness to assist. I almost fear to even mention this, but I feel that you will understand the motive, which is that every single little thing that goes out among the friends, or especially among the strangers, shall be as perfect as it can be made. It is audacious in me to even suggest this, but we are BAHAIS, and you know that offense, and not even criticism, is not intended; only the little possibility of helpfulness, and perhaps I have no competency even for that.[8]

Thus even in his official responsibilities as editor, Thornton always sought to show kindness and love for others.

      In addition to editing, Thornton Chase wrote prolifically. He spoke frequently at the Chicago Bahá'í worship service, usually from a typed text. The Thornton Chase Papers contain over sixty essays composed by Chase, works usually given first as talks. Many of these were popular enough to be informally circulated in typed form; one was even published by another man, under his own name, and without Chase's permission.[9]

      Thornton also wrote many long letters to those interested in the Bahá'í Faith, and these letters were often circulated in typed form as well. Thornton's first publication of his own on the Faith consisted of an unedited letter that he wrote to Mrs. Frank Fenno, a non-Bahá'í, on 27 September 1902.[10] Titled "Before Abraham was--I AM!" the pamphlet sought to help Christians accept Bahá'u'lláh:

I quote from you: "The same hard question is in my way. I have thought so long of my Master in the Father's Mansions, I fear to, as it seems to me, transfer my affections to this other Master, who to you is the same come again."

      Yes! There is the very essence of loyalty and difficulty to a nature such as I conceive yours to be. The loyal soul fears ever an apparent temptation to disloyalty. To us, however, the word and work, the personality and mission of Jesus, the Christ, become clarified, glorified and made more precious through the light thrown upon them by the knowledge of this Manifestation. Knowledge of Him has increased our love of Jesus.[11]

      Thornton's approach was typical of the Bahá'í scriptures and of the American Bahá'ís; he stressed the continuity between the Bahá'í Faith and Christianity and stated that Bahá'ís felt more love for Christ as Bahá'ís than they had as Christians. Chase then spoke of Jesus' true greatness. Following the approach found in Bahá'u'lláh's writings, he downplayed miracles, seeing them as a secondary proof, at best, of Jesus' station. Rather, Thornton argued, "The GREAT MIRACLE, the primary proof of the Divine Authority and Mission of Christ, was the Word that He spoke! He was the incarnated WORD."[12] He then described Jesus' poverty, humility, lack of a formal religious education, and association with the downtrodden of society. Chase noted this was in contrast to the expectations of the ancient Jewish priests that the Messiah would come from heaven, accompanied by angels and mighty signs:

      Alas for the pride and short-sightedness of man! The W O R D which that One spoke caused the fisherman to leave his livelihood and follow Him who seemed poorer than himself; caused the troubled, the oppressed, the sick unto death, to cling to Him; caused the learned and the great to be confounded; caused the powerful priests of the great Temple to tremble, and finally to clamor vehemently for His life. . . and it has swept on over a great section of the earth, causing untold millions to look to that W O R D, to learn thereby the Way of Life, and to come into that Life by following, each in his own station, the Way lived before him by that Mighty One.[13]

      Thus Thornton stressed the Word and its transforming power, a theme typical in his writings. And how did Jesus acquire access to the Word? Was it a result of developing his own potential? No, Thornton replied,

it was the wonder-working power of the Holy Spirit, which dwelt within Him and spoke through Him. It was the invincible might of divine Love, which poured itself forth for man through Him. It was the triumphant force of the example of patient suffering and sacrifice in the path of God for the sake of humanity. Of himself, he could do nothing, and claimed to do nothing; but the F A T H E R, who dwelt in Him, worked and spoke through Him that which all the hosts of earth and heaven could not accomplish otherwise.[14]

This, Thornton said, was what Jesus meant when he said "Before Abraham was, I am" (John 8:58)--that his reality was more than his personality or body, but the indwelling Spirit. This Spirit had returned in Bahá'u'lláh.

      But, Thornton added, "the `second coming' must bear evident marks of similitude to the first, in manner, character, instruction and in its Spirit, but it must be greater in results, wider in extension and different in effect."[15] He then gave examples. Jesus said "I come not to bring peace, but a sword" (Matt. 10:34), but Bahá'u'lláh said that "`the Most Great Peace must come,' and He established the laws and provisions for that time of peace."[16] The Second Coming will reiterate the truths of the first but would elaborate on them and break the seals on the meanings of the books of the prophets. Instead of reaching just the Mediterranean region, as the revelation of Christ did in the first few centuries, the new revelation immediately reached the whole world:

      Already, were you going to Persia, Egypt, Russia, India, China, Japan, France, England, Italy, Australia, or the islands of the Sea, to Mohammedans, Buddhists, Brahmans, Zoroastrians, Confucians, Jews or Christians, I could give you introductions, or even one Word [Alláh-u-Abhá], which would cause you to be greeted with the utmost warmth, kindness and service, by those who, a little while ago, were of such varying faiths. We, here in Chicago, are constantly receiving the most beautiful, spiritual, sincere and loving letters from these scattered peoples, and they are written by men (and women) who are evidently not lacking in either ethical culture or spiritual knowledge. A net-work of love, friendship and loyalty to the One Cause and the One God and to His Holy Manifestations, past and present, a net of spiritual brotherhood and faith, tied with binding knots of sincerity, without regard to nationality, country or previous faith, is being woven around the world. It is the harbinger of that "Most Great Peace."[17]

The international spread of the Bahá'í Faith, so much greater today, was already impressive in the early years of the twentieth century. Even today, most Christians do not experience Christianity as an international religion as strongly as early twentieth-century Bahá'ís experienced the international dimension of the Bahá'í Faith. The Bahá'ís often saw the international spread of their Faith as a proof of its truth.

      Thornton concluded by describing the glue that held the world Bahá'í community together: Bahá'u'lláh's life and the work of `Abdu'l-Bahá. Chase's description of `Abdu'l-Bahá adhered to `Abdu'l-Bahá's own statements about his station and avoided calling him the return of Christ:

He is the Centre of the new Covenant, the Fulfiller of the Law, the Exemplar of all men. He lives the Christ-life before our sight. He teaches the Christ doctrines anew to ears that can hear. He interprets the Words of the Father, and calls the seekers of every land to come and drink of the sweet waters of Truth. . . His great and constant claim is simply that of servitude to all the beloved of God, desiring self-abnegation in the Cause of God. His declared office is the Servant of God and of man.[18]

      The argumentation of "Before Abraham was--I AM!" reflects the very Bible-centered point of view of the Bahá'í community in 1902. Other works by early Bahá'ís were similar, notably Isabella Brittingham's The Revelation of Bahä-Ulläh in a Sequence of Four Lessons--which also centered on biblical prophecy--and Mírzá Abu'l-Fal's Bahá'í Proofs, which drew heavily on the Bible.[19] All three works appeared within a year of each other. The honest, sincere, sensitive, matter-of-fact tone of Thornton's pamphlet caused it to be fairly popular, and it was reprinted until the 1950s. Apparently Mrs. Fenno, the recipient of the original letter, was persuaded by Thornton's arguments and became a Bahá'í.[20]

      A year later Chase published another pamphlet, "What went ye out for to see?" It had the same layout and appearance as "Before Abraham was--I AM!" and therefore appears to have been designed as a companion work. Apparently Chase wrote it as a talk that he gave on `Abdu'l-Bahá's birthday on 23 May 1903; it was published in June 1904.[21] The essay's title comes from the words attributed to Jesus in Matthew 11:9, "But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet." Jesus was addressing those who went to see John the Baptist, but Thornton used the quotation to refer to those who wished to learn about `Abdu'l-Bahá. The five-page essay was a moving tribute and description of `Abdu'l-Bahá:

      The fame of him has gone around the world. Many, from this country, led by various motives, have visited him, and we have seen and heard them after their return. Without exception they have agreed in declaring that they have seen the most wonderful being upon the earth. They tell how, going before him with varied expectations, curiosities or hopes, and finding themselves in his presence, they were overwhelmed with awe, shame, fear, love, abasement or exaltation, emotions differing according to the conditions of each. They tell how they fell at his feet and longed to kiss even the dust on which he trod; how sudden consciousness of utter unworthiness oppressed them; how shame overcame them and made them long for sack-cloth and ashes; how immeasurable love possessed them and made them wish for death rather than separation from him.[22]

      Later, Thornton explained how `Abdu'l-Bahá had such an effect on people:

no soul can enter and leave his presence without being changed--for better, or for worse. Each one, coming within the calm gaze of his eyes, finds a search-light of self-conviction piercing the inmost depths of his being. It needs not a voice to tell him of his life. Before that look, the heart of each becomes his own accuser, and he can well repeat the words of the woman of Samaria: "Come see a man which told me all that I ever did." (John 4:29.) But when such an one, walking in the valley of despair, pressed down with his own unworthiness, hears the tender words of His Love, he is lifted up and joyfully ascends the mountains of exaltation.[23]

      Thornton noted that `Abdu'l-Bahá's words satisfy the illiterate and the educated alike, yet `Abdu'l-Bahá never attended a school. Thornton spoke of the Holy Spirit, manifesting itself in Bahá'u'lláh and now guiding `Abdu'l-Bahá. He closed with a beautiful description of `Abdu'l-Bahá and an invitation to the seeker to investigate `Abdu'l-Bahá's life:

He is the Liver of the Word, the Exemplar of the life commanded by the Father: He is the Leader of men, traveling the Path before them and proving, through all suffering and indignity, the joy and glory of treading the Way of God. He can say with One of old: "My father worketh hitherto, and I work." (John 5:17.) He is without blame, pure and righteous, and yet of all men the most humble and the servant of all. He is as gracious to the pauper as to the potentiate, to the child as to the patriarch. His one claim is to be Abdul-Baha--the Servant of God.[24]

      In the earliest days of the Bahá'í Faith in America, when the Bahá'í teachings were poorly understood, devotion to `Abdu'l-Bahá was central to the faith of the Bahá'ís. Thornton, clearly, had developed that devotion very highly, by talking for hours with those who had met `Abdu'l-Bahá and by reading their accounts and `Abdu'l-Bahá's tablets. But one senses something else: that Thornton had vicariously met `Abdu'l-Bahá through the descriptions of others and speaks almost from his own experience rather than that of others. In one case Thornton actually spoke of personally experiencing `Abdu'l-Bahá through the reading of an account of a visit to him.[25] It constituted a preparation for the ultimate experience of actually meeting `Abdu'l-Bahá face to face. Thornton had prayed and yearned for that moment, which finally, in 1907, became a reality.


[1]Thornton Chase to House of Spirituality, 15 December 1908, Chicago House of Spirituality Records, National Bahá'í Archives, Wilmette, Illinois.

[2]"Constitution of the House of Spirituality," TS, TC. The constitution is described in detail in Robert H. Stockman, The Bahá'í Faith in America, Early Expansion, 1900-1912, Volume Two (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1988) 167-69.

[3]Report to `Abdu'l-Bahá of the 5 July 1902 meeting of the Chicago House of Spirituality, House of Spirituality Records.

[4]Minutes of the House of Spirituality, 7 March 1903, House of Spirituality Records.

[5]Arthur Agnew Recollections, 1901-1922, National Bahá'í Archives.

[6]Carl Scheffler, "Thornton Chase: First American Bahá'í," World Order 11.5 (August, 1945):154.

[7]Thornton Chase to Mrs. [Louise] Waite (copy), 22 October 1905, 1, 2, TC.

[8]Thornton Chase to Mrs. [Louise] Waite (copy), 22 October 1905, 4.

[9]Jean Hazzard, "The Persian Revelation. No. II.," Occult Truth Seeker 1.10-11 (Mar.-Apr. 1902): 185-90. The Thornton Chase Papers contain a copy of the periodical with Chase's comments ("My article--T.C." and "used without authority, T.C."), as well as Chase's first draft and typescript of the essay.

[10]Thornton Chase to Mrs. Frank Fenno (copy), 27 September 1902, TC.

[11]Thornton Chase, "Before Abraham was--I AM!" (n.p., n.d.) [third page of text]. The pamphlet was probably published by the Bahai Publishing Society in 1902 or 1903.

[12]"Before Abraham was--I AM!" fifth page of text.

[13]"Before Abraham was--I AM!" sixth page of text.

[14]"Before Abraham was--I AM!" seventh page of text.

[15]"Before Abraham was--I AM!" eighth page of text.

[16]"Before Abraham was--I AM!" eighth page of text.

[17]"Before Abraham was--I AM!" ninth and tenth pages of text.

[18]"Before Abraham was--I AM!" tenth and eleventh pages of text.

[19]Isabella Brittingham, The Revelation of Bahä-Ulläh in a Sequence of Four Lessons (Chicago: Bahai Publishing Society, 1903); Mírzá Abu'l-Fal, Bahá'í Proofs, trans. Ali Kuli Khan, 2d ed. (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1983). These works are described in detail in Robert H. Stockman, The Bahá'í Faith in America, Early Expansion, 1900-1912, Volume Two (Oxford: George Ronald, 1995) 99-103, 81-86 respectively.

[20]Thornton Chase, The Reality of Christ (Toronto: Bahá'í Publishing Committee, n.d. [1957?]) consists of an edited version of "Before Abraham was--I AM!" Thornton Chase to Mrs. Frank Fenno (copy), 14 November 1902, notes that Mrs. Fenno has decided to send a supplication to `Abdu'l-Bahá, which probably means she wanted to write Him and declare her faith. Chase reports that Mrs. Fenno says she has been "led to the light" in Thornton Chase to Mr. H. Alphonso Steigner (copy), 10 October 1902, 1, TC.

[21]Chase wrote that he corrected the manuscript copy of "What went ye out for to see?" on 23 May 1903, on the back of the last page of the essay's typescript, in TC. In Thornton Chase to Mariam Haney (copy), 2 June 1904, TC, Thornton says he has just published it. Apparently Mrs. Haney had been circulating it in typed form during the previous year.

[22]Thornton Chase, "What went ye out for to see?" (n.p., n.d. [1904]), first page of text.

[23]"What went ye out for to see?" second page of text.

[24]"What went ye out for to see?" fourth and fifth pages of text.

[25]Thornton Chase to Isabella Brittingham (copy), 14 September 1902, 1-2. TC.

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