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Love's Odyssey:
The Life of Thornton Chase

by Robert Stockman

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Chapter 19

Chapter Nineteen


      Not all of Thornton's Bahá'í efforts were devoted to writing. He remained active on the Chicago House of Spirituality as well. Thornton Chase, Arthur Agnew, Carl Scheffler, and Corinne True returned from pilgrimage with guidance from `Abdu'l-Bahá about the importance of building a Bahá'í Temple in Chicago, and as a result of `Abdu'l-Bahá's encouragement, the project finally started to move forward. Chase himself was little involved in locating a site--in fact, when True located a site in Wilmette he opposed its purchase, on the grounds that it was too far from Chicago for the Bahá'ís there to reach on public transportation. (The Temple was originally intended to be the center of the Chicago Bahá'í community's activities.)

      Thornton was actively involved in organizing the first national Bahá'í convention, at which the Bahai Temple Unity, a national body to coordinate construction of the House of Worship, was elected. He was almost elected one of Chicago delegates to the convention--he received a tie vote as the third delegate and declined--but was appointed as the proxy delegate for the small community of Clyde, Illinois. The convention selected a nominating committee--among whom was Chase--to recommend nine names for the Bahai Temple Unity Executive Board. Subsequently, the convention accepted all of the nominees as the members of the Board. Thus Chase played an extremely important role in the convention.[1]

      Thornton also remained active in the Bahai Publishing Society. In addition to In Galilee and The Bahai Revelation, the Society published a volume of tablets of `Abdu'l-Bahá in 1909 and typeset two more volumes, to be published when the Society had the money to print them. While on pilgrimage, Chase and Agnew had shown `Abdu'l-Bahá samples of the volumes and had obtained his permission for their publication.

      However, planning the convention and editing Tablets of Abdul-Baha Abbas proved to be Thornton's last administrative tasks of importance. After the Bahai Temple Unity convention, in March 1909, the Chicago House of Spirituality suffered from a lack of direction. Most of its responsibilities had been national in scope, and now they had been assumed by the new national consultative body. The Bahai Publishing Society was saddled with a debt so serious that its activity stopped entirely for a time. Thornton was not able to suggest new tasks to the House of Spirituality, as he had done in the past, and he was no longer able to pay the Publishing Society's debts.

      Then about July 1909 the Union Mutual Life Insurance Company asked Thornton Chase to take a demotion and move to Los Angeles to supervise the company's West Coast operations. It apparently made the decision in order to remove Thornton from Chicago, in the hope that he would devote less time to Bahá'í activities if he lived elsewhere. Thornton's Bahá'í involvement had displeased the company for years. He spent much of his time, while traveling for the company, meeting with local Bahá'ís or organizing Bahá'í meetings in cities where no Bahá'ís were yet found. He occasionally hired Bahá'ís as company agents, and sometimes they did not prove good choices: in 1900 two Bahá'ís in Cincinnati, Purley M. Blake and Harry Clayton Thompson, misbehaved so seriously that Chase was almost fired. Blake circulated slanderous rumors about the president of Union Mutual, causing severe embarrassment, because the rumors were partly true.[2] Thompson ran for governor of Ohio on the Socialist party ticket, a party very much opposed by conservative businessmen such as those who run insurance companies; as a result, the company fired Thompson.[3]

      In 1903 Thornton had a serious difficulty in the company, which he described to Isabella Brittingham:

      For weeks. . .  I have been having a very serious time with the Company with which I am connected in business, and through the wrong doings of others, I have been misunderstood, condemned, insulted, and brought under a pressure that only God's aid has enabled me to bear without becoming insane. Again has my interest in other than business affairs been brought up and made ground of accusation of neglect of business and inability to attend to business, etc. . . . The storm is subsiding somewhat I think, but my future is very uncertain, and I am seeking for some other means of living and supporting those dependent on me.[4]

      But the worst was to come in 1907. As the history of Union Mutual notes:

"we will not," wrote [company president] Richards to Thornton Chase, a Company supervisor, "consent to trust any man who is speculating in stocks, making investments in blind pools, or false banks, or who is a fanatic in business, politics, or religion." The emphasis in this particular letter happened to be on fanaticism. An agent had just absconded from Cincinnati, taking large sums of the Company's money with him, and Mr. Chase had been, in Richards' opinion, the man responsible. Chase, as he did not deny, had as much as permitted the Cincinnati man to abscond because they were "co-religionists." Mr. Richards referred to the religion in question as a "cult"--a "fraternity of the Egyptian religion," the nature of which was such that--as Mr. Richards put it--"I believe it could not exist anywhere except in Chicago. . . a natural hotbed of anarchy." Richards ordered another Company representative to investigate rather than discharge Chase. The trouble was that Mr. Chase had been an excellent agent; and even though [vice-president] Bates and Richards might fear he had now gone mad, it would still be hard to replace him.[5]

      The agent's name is not given, but it may have been Purley M. Blake. Exactly what Chase did is not made clear, but it is hard to imagine he would have agreed to or knowingly allowed the theft of company funds. The letter reveals that Union Mutual's president knew nothing about the Bahá'í Faith. His superiors' suspicion of strange religions must have complicated Thornton's relations with them and placed a cloud over his work, a cloud that his earnest efforts to serve the Bahá'í Faith could have only made worse.

      Thornton made it clear in two letters that the Bahá'í Faith was the major cause for his demotion. In one he says "you know I have lost my position in business because of my attention to religious matters partly." In another he says the demotion occurred because of his "ardor in the Cause of God."[6] He hoped to leave the company instead, move to Denver, and start a land company. He wrote various friends to raise the necessary capital, but apparently such investment was not forthcoming.[7] With a wife, a son in college, and an ailing mother-in-law to support, Thornton could not retire, as he ardently desired. Nor could he find another job, at age sixty-two. As a result he had no choice but to accept the demotion and move to Los Angeles.

      By sheer coincidence, on 18 August, when his anguish was near its peak, Thornton received two tablets from `Abdu'l-Bahá. The first praised The Bahai Revelation highly. The second was tender and extraordinarily affectionate:

      Praise thou God that thou art an assured believer, firm and established, a servant of the Kingdom and a speaker of Truth. Under all circumstances thou art near to me: in spirit thou art my intimate and in the servitude of the Beauty of Abha [Bahá'u'lláh], thou art my associate and companion. I beg for thee an inexhaustible share from the Bounty of the Day of Manifestation.[8]

      Apparently in response Thornton wrote `Abdu'l-Bahá about the trouble with his company, because a beautiful tablet arrived at Christmastime 1909, two months after Thornton had settled in Los Angeles:

O thou who art firm (Thahbet) in the Covenant!. . .

      Be thou not sad nor unhappy on account of the incidents which have transpired. As these trials have come to you in the Path of God, therefore they must become the cause of your happiness and rejoicing. . . the believers of the West shall receive a portion and a share from the trials of the friends of the East. Assuredly, in the Path of His Holiness, Baha'o'llah, they will become the target of the ridicule of the people of oppression.

      Consider thou, in the first period of Christ, how the apostles were afflicted with suffering and oppression for the sake of His Highness, the Christ. Every day they became the target of the arrows of derision and the curse of the Pharisees, and they accepted great persecutions, experienced prison and dungeon, and the majority of them drank the cup of the most great martyrdom. Now, unquestionably, you must become also my partner and sharer and take a portion from these afflictions and troubles.

      However, all these things shall pass away. What remains and lasts is the eternal glory and everlasting life, and those trials shall be the cause of universal progress and development.[9]

      Thornton, indeed, now became a "partner and sharer" of `Abdu'l-Bahá's sufferings. The remaining years of his life were shaped by a series of grave personal difficulties. The new position brough him only half the salary that he had been earning, out of which had to come the tuition for his son's study at Dartmouth College. The result was acute and on-going financial difficulty. He continued to have trouble with his company. His wife, knowing that Thornton's Bahá'í activities had caused his demotion, became considerably opposed to his continued Bahá'í work. Furthermore, Thornton's health was failing. Bowel problems that had plagued him for twenty years became worse. More generally, he was beginning to feel the limitations of his age, which made it difficult for him to continue to work a forty-hour week in addition to giving Bahá'í talks.[10]

      However, these afflictions, rather than quenching the flame of Thornton's spirit, made it burn brighter. In 1902, writing to another American Bahá'í, Thornton had asked why `Abdu'l-Bahá craved martyrdom.[11] Perhaps now he had a better appreciation of the paradoxical qualities of suffering, the spiritual forces it sets in motion, and the secret victories hidden within outwardly apparent failure. As Bahá'u'lláh describes the soul in the Valley of Contentment:

In this Valley he feeleth the winds of divine contentment blowing from the plane of the spirit. He burneth away the veils of want, and with the inward and outward eye, perceiveth within and without all things the day of "God will compensate each one out of His abundance" [Qur'án 4:129]. From sorrow he turneth to bliss, from anguish to joy. His grief and mourning yield to delight and rapture.[12]

      Thornton arose and acted. He disliked Los Angeles--"I can not feel `at home' out here" he confessed to a Chicago Bahá'í, almost two years after moving. Yet he initiated the effort that transformed a scattering of southern California Bahá'ís into a functioning community. Greater Los Angeles had about thirty Bahá'ís dispersed in the area's various suburbs and towns. Nevertheless, on 8 January 1910, three months after Chase's arrival, the Bahá'ís elected a five-member governing board, loosely patterned after the Chicago House of Spirituality. Thornton was among its members; it was the tenth local Bahá'í consultative body to have been formed in North America. The Los Angeles Bahá'ís also started holding monthly meetings for worship and to attract religious seekers. An organized community now existed where none had previously.[13]

      Thornton's job took him on the road much more now than when he lived in Chicago; he frequently visited the Bahá'í communities in Seattle, Portland, Oakland, San Francisco, and Denver. Because of their distance from Chicago, the center of North American Bahá'í activity, these communities were less knowledgeable of the Bahá'í religion than the Bahá'í communities on the East Coast and Midwest. Thornton's frequent visits and talks did much to strengthen the Bahá'í Faith in the West. He never traveled east of Denver again.

      No longer able to serve on the House of Spirituality and no longer a member of a very large Bahá'í community, Thornton felt "out of it."[14] However, he compensated for his lack of opportunities to serve the Bahá'í Faith directly by writing more letters. Thornton's letters from his California period are among his most beautiful, because his love for each recipient is tangible and contagious. In them one can sense what some developmental psychologists have called a zone of liberation--the ability of some people, through their wisdom and insight, to inspire others and help them feel free to change and grow.[15] One singular example is Thornton's letter to Willard Hatch, written to congratulate Hatch about the birth of his new son. The letter said in part:

      Your letters are a prize to me; in spirit and in knowledge they refresh my soul. I thank you for them. I praise God that you have a son. Greetings to him who, becoming a father, gains a new appreciation of the meaning of Unity and the "oneness." Learning this lesson, he, too, shall become a divine Son. Congratulations to her who forgets her travail, "for joy that a man is born into the world," and thus she enters a new realm of the Kingdom of Love. Welcome and hope to the little one who has arrived "from the nowhere into the here," the white blossom, springing forth from "water and clay," and floating on the bosom of the sea of creative light. It has become individualized into the Kingdom of Time to prepare for self-conscious and joyful service in the Kingdom of Eternity. Another cell is come into being in the Grand Man of Humanity. May its mission be of great capacity and nobility under the Mercy of the Merciful One![16]

      Distinctive in the letter is a new, cosmic perspective on the world, absent in Thornton's previous writings. In very different words, Bahá'u'lláh similarly exhorts religious seekers in his book The Seven Valleys:

      O friend, the heart is the dwelling of eternal mysteries, make it not the home of fleeting fancies; waste not the treasure of thy precious life in employment with this swiftly passing world. Thou comest from the world of holiness--bind not thine heart to the earth; thou art a dweller in the court of nearness--choose not the homeland of the dust.[17]

      Because of this cosmic perspective--one could almost say a divine point of view--Thornton tended to expound spontaneously on spiritual themes in his letters. Aware of the tendency, he occasionally apologized for "preaching" all the time.[18] His letter to Willard Hatch has a good example:

      To all of the true and precious sentiments in your letters goes forth the cry,--Amen! What but the love and enlightenment of God could bring them forth! They are contrary to the desires of the natural man, who, thus, could never devise them. The world is brilliant and warm with the holy Light of the Spirit, and the clear mirrors [pure souls], which have been purified through stress, suffering, and sincerity, are reflecting that Light gloriously. Truly they are "A host of Hearts filled with the love of God; A host of Voices sounding the praise of God!"

      Knowledge must promote humility, because each bit of knowledge proves but a key to unlock the doors to gardens of knowledges, and as more and more appears until we are amazed at the magnitude, the infinity of that which we do not know, we must bow to the dust before the Owner of those paradises. Pride must melt before such grandeur, and be transformed into "Spiritual appreciation of the Glory of God." I thank you for these beautiful expressions. Indeed, I thank God for Beauty![19]

      Here Thornton expresses in different words Bahá'u'lláh's statement that the effort to know God truly and completely leads to a confession of helplessness, which is "in itself the acme of human understanding, and marketh the culmination of man's development."[20] He had had an experience like that described by Bahá'u'lláh when a soul enters the Valley of Wonderment: he is "tossed in the oceans of grandeur, and at every moment his wonder groweth. Now he seeth the shape of wealth as poverty itself, and the essence of freedom as sheer impotence."[21]

      Yet Thornton did not just send Hatch a letter of congratulations, he also appended a poem. The last three years of his life saw him pick up his pen again and write poetry. He dedicated "The Warrior" to Hatch's newborn son. It, too, demonstrated a cosmic perspective on infancy and humanity:

Out from the East,--whence all creation springs,
      Where rosy Dawn provides all precious things,--
An infant warrior suddenly appeared,
      Equipped with charms and powers--by heaven endeared,
To meet life's battles on the fields of earth,
      And win swift honors from his hour of birth.

Coming with eager cry and clenched fists,
      He entered Life's arena. In its lists
He challenged love from all the hearts around,
      And, by his mighty helplessness, he crowned
Himself with triumphs. None who could deny
      Him conqueror in arts of war, nor vie
With him in victories! Thus, from above,
      Doth heaven arm infancy to conquer love.[22]

      Birth and death often bring out the most profound observations that a person can offer. Thornton's other particularly remarkable letter was written to a French Bahá'í, Hippolyte Dreyfus, on the occasion of Dreyfus's loss of his father. Making the letter even more remarkable is that Thornton was not writing to a close friend--like Willard Hatch--in order to console him for his loss, but to a complete stranger. The letter is best quoted in full:

      Your remembrance of this stranger-friend in the time of your bereavement touches my heart. It beats with love for you and sympathy with you and your good mother in the grief of separation which must be naturally your trial at this time. Accept my sincere regard and condolence.

      Dear Brother-servant in Truth; Death bears a different aspect to me than it formerly showed. I never see now the form of one who has passed away, that a feeling of gladness does not possess me. I see, in a true imagination, founded upon a certain knowledge and faith, the released soul, escaped from its prison of dust, and flying upward in the glorious freedom of the "Spaceless," rejoicing in new found knowledge of its hidden powers, and glorifying in the atmosphere of the Spirit.

      I sorrow for the living ones who are left behind, whose yearning sight is limited by fleshly bonds, and I long to say to them--Grieve not, for you must know that there is really no separation between those who love. Love is deathless, eternal; it is of God; it is God. It is the power that holds the atoms together, which holds the planets in their orbits, which binds human souls in unity, which shall bring those souls unerringly together in the eternal universe of the "unseen." Love shall save, revive, unite all in whom love dwells.

      Wherefore, let us not grieve, but consider the joy of love and await patiently the time when we shall pass from the earth of dust, into the heaven of Unity, Love and Permanence.

      Greetings and Joy to you in His Name, who is Love Eternal.[23]

      In this letter Thornton describes the nature of his spiritual insight: it is neither a vision nor an intellectual conclusion, but a "true imagination, founded upon certain knowledge and faith."[24] Thus he describes it as a kind of mental faculty. Bahá'u'lláh promises that "death proffereth unto every confident believer the cup that is life indeed. It bestoweth joy, and is the bearer of gladness."[25] Thornton had, indeed, experienced the fulfillment of this promise.

      Thornton's letter to Dreyfus, like the one to Hatch, closes with an emphasis on love; indeed, it closes with the word love itself. Love had now come to possess and dominate Thornton's entire being. Though he continued to work for a living, dealing with the endless paperwork of his insurance company, and though he continued to experience physical pain, yet a part of Thornton lived in a different plane. Bahá'u'lláh describes something reminiscent as the "Valley of True Poverty and Absolute Nothingness"--which is the ultimate valley in the seven valleys of the spiritual life:

Ecstasy alone can encompass this theme, not utterance nor argument; and whosoever hath dwelt at this stage of the journey, or caught a breath from this garden land, knoweth whereof We speak.[26]

      On a more prosaic level, developmental psychology offers metaphors for describing the human life cycle as it nears its end. Erikson sees the adult move through the challenges of intimacy versus isolation and generativity versus stagnation to a final stage, integrity versus despair. At this stage the individual, knowing his or her life is nearly over and knowing that she or he can no longer make choices that will significantly alter its course, looks back over life achievements and evaluates them as good or bad, as significant or meaningless. The individual also examines life through the lens of personal experience and either finds reconciliation and meaning, or hopelessness, despair, even disgust.[27] With the aches in his bones daily increasing, Thornton indeed was reviewing life and death, and was integrating life events into a whole; he did not experience despair and meaninglessness. Erikson notes that one result of successful integration at this stage of life is reconciliation of oneself with death.

      Another metaphor for Thornton's stage of existence is offered by James Fowler, a developmental psychologist with considerable pastoral experience. He describes life as a series of stages of faith, as a progression of ways of making meaning and sense out of the world. His sixth and last stage he calls "universalizing faith":

      This stage is exceedingly rare. The persons best described by this stage have generated faith compositions in which their felt sense of an ultimate environment is inclusive of all being. They become incarnators and actualizers of the spirit of a fulfilled human community. They are "contagious" in the sense that they create zones of liberation from the social, political, economic, and ideological shackles we place and endure on human futurity. . . . [They live] with felt participation in a reality that unifies and transforms the world. . . . The rare persons who may be described by this stage have a special grace that somehow makes them seem more lucid, more simple, and yet somehow more fully human than the rest of us. Their community is universal in extent. . . . Life is both loved and held to loosely.[28]

      Whether one uses metaphors from the Bahá'í writings or descriptions from psychologists, the ultimate lesson of Thornton's life is that he had the strength to live it. He had the courage to become and to be, or as Thornton would say, to live. He could have given no higher lesson.


[1]For the details of the first national Bahá'í convention, see Robert H. Stockman, The Bahá'í Faith in America, Early Expansion, volume two (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1988) 309-12.

[2]George Stuyvesant Jackson, A Maine Heritage: The History of the Union Mutual Life Insurance Company (Portland, Me.: Union Mutual Life Insurance Company, 1964) 148.

[3]Thornton Chase to Carl Scheffler (copy), 10 May 1910, 1, TC. In the early years of this century, the American Bahá'ís did not yet know that Bahá'í scripture prohibited running for elected political offices.

[4]Thornton Chase to Isabella Brittingham (copy), 29 March 1903, 1, TC.

[5]Jackson, A Maine Heritage 140-41.

[6]Thornton Chase to John Crowley (copy), 10 September 1909, TC; Thornton Chase to Mírzá Munír Zayn (copy), 9 September 1909, 2, TC.

[7]See for example, Thornton Chase to Harlan Ober (copy), 30 July 1909, 1, TC; Thornton Chase to Alfred Lunt (copy), 17 August 1909, 1, TC.

[8]`Abdu'l-Bahá to Thornton Chase (copy), received 18 August 1909, TC.

[9]`Abdu'l-Bahá to Thornton Chase (copy), translated by Ahmad Sohrab on 14 December 1909, received by Chase on Christmas 1909, TC.

[10]Thornton Chase to Arthur Agnew (copy), 14 July 1911, 1, TC, notes that his salary in California was half what it was in Chicago. He describes the severity of his financial troubles in Thornton Chase to John Bosch (copy), 26 July 1912, 1, TC. Troubles with his company are mentioned in Thornton Chase to Albert Windust (copy), 22 June 1912, 1, TC. His wife's opposition to his Bahá'í work is mentioned in Thornton Chase to Harlan Ober (copy), 28 November 1909, 1, TC.

[11]Thornton Chase to Isabella Brittingham (copy), 2 May 1902, TC.

[12]Bahá'u'lláh, The Seven Valleys and The Four Valleys, trans. Marzieh Gail and Ali Kuli Khan, 3d ed. (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1978) 29.

[13]Thornton Chase to Mrs. Fannie Lesch (copy), 19 July 1911, 1 TC. Bahai News 1.2 (9 April 1910): 7.

[14]Thornton Chase to Albert Windust (copy), 21 January 1911, 1, TC.

[15]James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981) 200-201.

[16]Thornton Chase to Willard Hatch (copy), n.d. [August 1911], 1-2, TC.

[17]Bahá'u'lláh, The Seven Valleys 35.

[18]Thornton Chase to Carl Scheffler (copy), 17 November 1910, 7, TC.

[19]Thornton Chase to Willard Hatch (copy), n.d. [August 1911], 2, TC.

[20]Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, trans. Shoghi Effendi (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1976) 165-66.

[21]Bahá'u'lláh, The Seven Valleys 31.

[22]Thornton Chase, "The Warrior," appended to Thornton Chase to Willard Hatch (copy), n.d. [August 1911], TC.

[23]Thornton Chase to Hippolyte Dreyfus (copy), 12 February 1911, 1-2, TC.

[24]Chase to Hippolyte Dreyfus (copy), 12 February 1911, 1.

[25]Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings 345.

[26]Bahá'u'lláh, The Seven Valleys 39.

[27]Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society (New York: W. W. Norton, 1963) 268-69.

[28]James Fowler and Robin W. Lovin, Trajectories in Faith: Five Life Stories (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1980) 30-31. Also see James Fowler, Stages of Faith 199-210.

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