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Love's Odyssey:
The Life of Thornton Chase

by Robert Stockman

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Chapter 2

Chapter Two


      An integral part of Thornton Chase's preparation for his signal services to the Bahá'í Faith was his New England upbringing. He was reared in an upper-middle class evangelical Protestant family of venerable New England Puritan stock. His ancestors arrived in New England almost at the very beginning of its settlement by Europeans. Although the Pilgrims settled at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620, until John Winthrop arrived at Boston with seven hundred settlers in 1630, the total white population had been less than a few hundred.[1] The English that Winthrop led were Puritans--Protestants who insisted on a pure, biblical church (hence their name) and who viewed the Anglican Church (the only legal church in England) as corrupted. However, they believed that the Church could be reformed from within and sought to do so, until 1630, when the king appointed a new head of the church, William Laud, who persecuted the Puritans severely. From 1630 to 1643 over twenty thousand Puritans fled to New England, where they endeavored to set up a holy commonwealth based on their understanding of the revelation of Jesus Christ.[2] To guarantee the purity of both Church and State, only church members could vote or hold public office; and only those who could testify to a conversion experience--called "evidence of election"--could become church members. Church attendance and observance of the Sabbath theoretically were enforced by law, and the unorthodox had to remain silent or be banished. Repeat offenders could be dealt with harshly: from 1659 to 1661 four Quakers were hanged in Massachusetts for their teaching.[3]

      An active participant in the New England experiment was Thornton's great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Aquila Chase (c. 1618-1670). Apparently he came from Chesham, England. The date of his arrival in New England is unknown, but the records of the town meetings of Hampton, New Hampshire, on the Atlantic coast, indicate that he was granted land and settled there in 1640. His piety was perhaps not as great as desired; in 1646 he and his wife picked peas on the Sabbath, for which offense they were admonished and fined. Also in that year Aquila moved to nearby Newbury, Massachusetts, where he was a mariner or fisherman and probably farmed as well. He and his wife Ann had eleven children, ten of whom survived to adulthood.[4] This was not an unusual number of children in New England; when Thomas Malthus later wrote his essays on the growth of human population, he had New England's experience in mind.

      Among Aquila's sons was Thomas (1654-1733), a carpenter and farmer. He resided in Newbury all his life and served in the militia twice against Indians--once in King Philip's War in 1675, and once against the Narragansetts in Rhode Island. He married twice--not unusual, since many women died from complications following childbirth--and fathered eleven children, all of whom survived to adulthood.[5]

      Thomas's oldest son was also named Thomas (1680-1756), and he continued the family's residence in Newbury. With this Thomas we have the first sign of piety in the family; he was named a deacon--a member of the governing council--of the Second Church of Newbury and helped to organize the Fourth Parish Church of Newbury, of which he was also a deacon. As such, he would have been a prominent man in town.[6]

      Among his eight children was Josiah (1713-1778), who departed from family tradition in two significant ways. First, he moved from Newbury. By the early eighteenth century all the farmland there must have been allotted, and the amount of acreage per farmer, because of division among heirs, had become too small to support a family. Hence Josiah, like many other young men from his town, moved to the nearest frontier, which was in central New Hampshire and southern Maine. However, Josiah did not become a farmer; rather, he continued his father's interest in religion and became a minister. New England Puritans had high expectations of their clergy and required them to have a good education, including a good knowledge of Greek and Latin. As a result, Josiah was the first of his family to acquire some university education (and the last, until Thornton attended Brown University). New England had only two colleges in the mid-eighteenth century, Harvard and Yale, and Yale was far away in another colony and little known. Virtually every minister in eastern Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine was Harvard educated; hence Josiah went to Cambridge. He graduated from Harvard in 1738 and subsequently obtained his master's degree there.[7]

      Josiah prepared for the ministry during a difficult time for New England's Puritan churches. The early eighteenth century has been called the "glacial age" because piety was reputedly at a very low level. Religious pluralism was also on the rise. The use of the death penalty against heterodoxy had been stopped by the king, and Quakerism spread in Massachusetts. Many New England Puritans became interested in Baptist theology, which was identical to their own except that it rejected infant baptism and insisted that only those who had had a born-again experience should be baptized. The first Baptist church in Massachusetts had been opened in Boston as early as 1665.[8]

      To revive the piety of their congregations, many ministers began to preach fire-and-brimstone sermons and to stress the importance of experiencing rebirth. These sermons sometimes produced revivals, which were local, short-lived, and brought a dozen or so converts. But in 1734--the year Josiah Chase entered Harvard--Jonathan Edwards, a brilliant theologian who was pastor of the Puritan church in Northampton, Massachusetts, started a revival that lasted several years and spread to most towns in central Massachusetts and Connecticut. It was to transform New England Puritanism; thousands professed conversion. For religious-conscious New England, it was the greatest event of the century.

      It also proved one of the most controversial. As quickly as the Awakening--as the event came to be called--acquired advocates, it also acquired critics, who charged that emotion, not religion, was being spread. Their view was reinforced in 1740 when a brilliant but impetuous young preacher named George Whitefield toured New England. Although initially received favorably by virtually every minister, Whitefield's comments that most New England clergy were probably unconverted and that Harvard and Yale were sources of darkness instead of light soon alienated many, including Josiah Chase. When Charles Chauncy, leader of the opposition against the revival, published his chief anti-revival book in 1743, Josiah Chase was one of the work's subscribers. The one comment on Chase's theology that has survived indicates that he, like Chauncy, tended toward a liberal interpretation of Puritan principles.[9]

      Josiah also became involved in a local church split that was partly caused by the Awakening. In 1750 he was called to be the minister of a new church that was forming in Kittery, Maine. Its members were leaving the Middle Parish Church in Kittery, which was presided over by a revivalist minister; neither the minister nor any delegates of the old church attended the ceremony marking the creation of the new church.[10] At least both churches remained part of the same denomination; in other towns, the revival was provoking bitter church splits, and new Protestant sects were arising. As a result, the established Puritan churches lost their monopoly on religion and became one church among many in town. They now needed a name--they came to be called Congregational churches.

      Josiah's ministry was undistinguished. Family legend has it that his faith was "literal and childlike." It is said that one day, while preaching a sermon, he had a premonition that a shoal of fish was entering the creek nearby; all the men of the congregation went down to the water and were able to make a big catch.[11]

      Chase married Sarah Tufts in 1743 and fathered six sons and one daughter. He was known for his rum drinking--about a quart a day--but the Colonial Period was a time of high alcohol consumption. (Protestants did not begin to consider drinking a sin and to call for abolition of alcoholic beverages until the early nineteenth century.) He died on 10 December 1778, as a result of falling into a creek while walking home in a snowstorm after attending a wedding.[12]

      Josiah's second son, also named Josiah (1746-1824), distinguished himself in a different way: he joined the Revolutionary Army in 1780 and rose to the rank of colonel. In his seven and a half months of service, he was a quartermaster and paymaster. The decision to volunteer entailed considerable sacrifice; his brother Simon had been killed in the war in 1776, and Josiah already had a family. He had married Hannah Grow in 1765, and when he entered the army they already had six children, the oldest of whom was ten. Eventually they had twelve children. The family lived in York, Maine, where Josiah was a clothier.[13]

      Nothing else is known about Colonel Josiah Chase. His attitude toward religion would be particularly valuable if it were known because there is the possibility that he became a Baptist. One of his sons was a Baptist minister and one grandson the deacon of a Baptist church. In spite of opposition by ministers like the Reverend Josiah Chase, revivals persisted, and in Maine during the Revolutionary War they reached an unprecedented intensity. They were especially common among war veterans like Colonel Chase. Revivals were sponsored by local churches of several denominations: the revivalistic Congregationalists; independent "New Light" churches; Baptist churches of two types--those advocating Puritan theology and those that stressed Free Will; and Universalist churches, which rejected Puritanism's belief in damnation of the unconverted and advocated belief in the eventual salvation of everyone instead. The regular Baptists gained the most members because their theology was similar to the prevailing Congregational churches and because they did not suffer as much disruption from the Revolution as did the Congregationalists.[14] The Chase family, either under Colonel Josiah Chase or under his son Jotham Sewall Chase, was among those converted to regular Baptism.

      Jotham (1790-1883) was Josiah's youngest son. The name comes from the Old Testament, Judges 9:5, where Jotham was the youngest son of Jerubbaal. The fact that the family chose the name suggests that he was intended to be the last child. Jotham was a manufacturer who lived in various Maine towns--York, Woolwich, and Wiscasset at least--before settling in Boston in 1856.[15] He had ten children by his first wife, Mary Gould.

      His eldest son, Jotham Gould Chase (1816-1884), was Thornton's father. Born in Anson, Maine, Jotham moved to Boston briefly when he was twenty-one and became a merchant. In 1840 he settled in Springfield, a manufacturing center of 11,000 that was the largest city in western Massachusetts. It is not known why Jotham chose to settle in Springfield, but he had several cousins living there. Springfield was one of the most rapidly growing cities in Massachusetts, both in terms of population and in terms of business opportunities. It sat at a crossroads: at Springfield, railroads connecting Albany to Boston intersected lines running from Hartford and New Haven, Connecticut, to New Hampshire and Vermont. The United States Armory in the city turned out the famous Springfield rifle, in heavy demand by soldier and pioneer alike. Because of the armory, the city was assured a steady economy and a large pool of skilled artisans. Although it lacked water power, the development of cheap steam power allowed local business interests to capitalize on the city's transportation and skilled workers to open a wide variety of small factories.[16]

      Jotham was one of those who capitalized on the business opportunities. He was a remarkable man with a varied career. His obituary speaks of him as "a man of public spirit, sympathetic and earnest socially and industrious in business" with a "kindly face." He is also called a "Christian gentleman."[17] In Springfield he went into the dry goods business with a cousin, E. C. Wilson, establishing Wilson and Chase Company. About 1846 he entered the lumber business, opening a lumberyard that he ran with various partners at different times and by himself at other times. Gradually the business grew. In 1865 the Springfield city directory described the firm thus:

Chase, J. G. and Brother, Steam Planing Mill, Lumber Yard, and Door, Sash and Blind Manufactory, north side of Western Railroad, a few rods east of depot. Dealers in Michigan, Canada, and Domestic Lumber, Shingles, and Lath. Also, manufacturers and Dealers in Long Dressed Clapboards, Floorings of all kinds, Sheathings, Carpenter's Molding, Stair Work, &c, &c.[18]

      The operation, which produced materials for the local housing industry, must have been quite large, employing dozens and taking in thousands of dollars each year in revenue. It undoubtedly reflected the Civil War business boom, during which the city produced a million Springfield rifles, pistols, cannon, uniforms, and many other items for the war. As a result, the number of dwellings in the city jumped from 2801 in 1860 to 3556 in 1865. The end of the war did not see a drop in Springfield's prosperity, and an additional fifteen hundred dwellings were built in the next decade. As the business expanded, Chase opened a second operation in Hartford, Connecticut, at the urging of that city's mayor. He also invested in real estate--the city was developing rapidly--and by the early 1870s was one of Springfield's wealthiest men. In the early 1850s he moved to Maple Street, a wide avenue that ran along the crest of a hill, which became the principal residential neighborhood for the city's wealthy. The Springfield city directory for 1871-72 described the setting as having "rare natural advantages, and affords views of the [Connecticut] river, the city and the adjacent country, not elsewhere surpassed." It added that Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape architect, had been engaged to lay out the grounds of a mansion that Chase intended to build.[19] Two years later, the directory described the mansion:

      Mr. Chase's house fronts both toward the river and on Maple Street, and is of brick, with Ohio gray sandstone trimmings. It is two stories high, surmounted by a tower, and 80 by 40 feet in extreme dimensions. A piazza 10 feet wide extends along the entire west side and on the north and south ends, connecting with a plant stand at the southeast corner. Columns of polished Aberdeen granite support the main porch, and the rich carvings are especially noticeable. The rooms will be elegantly furnished and each is of a generous size. The house will cost about $50,000, exclusive of ground.[20]

      But Jotham Chase did not enjoy his house for long. The city directory for 1874-75 gives his address as "Blake's Hill," and gives his occupation as "lumber dealer," while listing the firm of Day and Jobson as "successors to J. G. Chase and Brother." This suggests a financial reverse, which probably resulted from the Panic of 1873 and the subsequent six-year economic depression. The number of dwellings in Springfield increased only by thirty-six between 1875 and 1880, a disastrous statistic for a lumber company. Chase's house on Blake's Hill was elegant but not as grand as the mansion on Maple Street.[21]

      Jotham was also very successful in fields other than business. He was a "singer of marked force and sweetness," singing in Boston's Handel and Haydn Society while residing in that city. He read a paper before the Springfield Scientific Association on 30 October 1866 titled "Trees," an apt subject for a lumberman. He represented Ward Six on the Springfield School Committee from 1876 to 1881; his obituary says he was on the city council.[22] However, he was most active in the First Baptist Church of Springfield, which he joined as soon as he arrived in the city. He was "prominent in its work" and served as a deacon of the church from 1880 to 1884. He also directed its choir.[23] He was a pious Christian who married an active Baptist churchwoman and who sent his son to a Baptist clergyman for tutoring and to a Baptist college for his education.

      Jotham's domestic life was fated to be less successful than his various careers. On 29 April 1846 he married Miss Sarah Cutts S. G. Thornton of Saco, Maine. She had been born on 23 July 1820, the oldest daughter of James Brown Thornton (1790-?) and Eliza E. Gookin (1795-1854).[24] About a month later she became pregnant, timing that was not unusual in nineteenth- century America. Their marriage would end with her death shortly after the birth of their son, James Brown Thornton Chase, on 22 February 1847.


[1]Darrett B. Rutman, Winthrop's Boston: Portrait of a Puritan Town, 1630-1649 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1965) 4.

[2]Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People, Vol. 1 (Garden City, N.Y.: Image Books, 1975) 193.

[3]Ahlstrom, Religious History of the American People 232.

[4]John Carroll Chase and George Walter Chamberlain, Seven Generations of the Descendants of Aquila and Thomas Chase (Haverhill, Mass.: Record Publishing Co., 1928) 9, 29-31. William Moody Chase, Reminiscences of the Family of Moody Chase of Shirley, Massachusetts; also, a Brief Account of His Ancestry (Baltimore: John H. Shane and Co., Printers, 1888) 9.

[5]Chase, Seven Generations 37-39.

[6]Chase, Seven Generations 46-47.

[7]Chase, Seven Generations 64.

[8]Winthrop S. Hudson, Religion in America, 2d ed. (N.Y.: Scribner's, 1973) 44, 29; Ahlstrom, A Religious History 283.

[9]"Josiah Chase," in Clifford K. Shipton, Sibley's Harvard Graduates, volume 10, 1736-1740 (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1958) 272.

[10]"Josiah Chase" 272.

[11]The Chase Chronicle 4.1 (Jan. 1913): 11-12.

[12]"Josiah Chase" 274.

[13]Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War (Boston: Wright and Potter, 1897) 359; Chase, Seven Generations 113.

[14]The best description of religion in frontier New England is Stephen A. Marini's Radical Sects of Revolutionary New England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982). The frequent conversion of war veterans is noted on pages 51 and 53. The disruption of the Congregational churches and the growth of the Baptist churches is described on pages 36-38 and 45-46.

[15]Obituary of Jothan Sewall Chase, in the Boston Daily Advertiser, Tuesday, 4 September 1883, p. 5, col. 2. It can be inferred that he lived in Woolwich because his son was born there (death certificate of Jotham Gould Chase, author's personal papers). His occupation is listed in his son's obituary as well; see "Death of J. G. Chase," in the Springfield Republican, Saturday, 6 December 1884, p. 6, col. 2.

[16]"Springfield, Descriptive, Historical, and Statistical," in Bessey's Springfield Directory for 1851-1852 (Springfield: M. Bessey, 1851) 7. An excellent description of Springfield's rapid economic growth, and an analysis of the reasons for it, may be found in Michael H. Frisch, Town into City: Springfield, Massachusetts, and the Meaning of Community, 1840-1880 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1972).

[17]"Death of J. G. Chase," in Springfield Republican, Saturday, 6 December 1884, p. 6, col. 2; "Mrs. Cornelia (Savage) Chase," in Commemorative Biographical Record of Hartford County, Connecticut, Containing biographical sketches of prominent and representative citizens, and of many of the early settled families, vol. 1 (Chicago: J. H. Beers & Co., 1901) 351.

[18]Springfield City Directory and Business Advertiser, For 1865-66. From July, 1865, to July, 1866. (Springfield: Samuel Bowles and Co., 1865) 54.

[19]Springfield's growth during the war years is described in Frisch, Town to City 74-88. "Mrs. Cornelia (Savage) Chase," 351; Springfield City Directory and Business Advertiser for 1871-72, For the Year Commencing June 1, 1871. (Springfield: Samuel Bowles and Co., 1871) 28.

[20]Springfield City Directory, and Business Advertiser for 1873-74. For the Year Commencing June 1, 1873. (Springfield: Clark W. Bryan and Co., 1873) 40-41.

[21]Springfield City Directory, and Business Advertiser for 1874-75. For the Year Commencing July 1, 1874. (Springfield: Clark W. Bryan and Co., 1874) 149, 172. Frisch, Town to City 200.

[22]"Mrs. Cornelia (Savage) Chase" 351; Jotham G. Chase, "Trees," MS, manuscript collection, Springfield Public Library, Springfield, Massachusetts. Jotham is listed as a member of the school committee in the following: Springfield City Directory and Business Advertiser, Combined With Directories of New West Springfield, Chicopee, and Chicopee Falls, 1876-77, For the Year commencing July 1st, 1876, comp. Clark W. Bryan and Co. (Springfield: Clark W. Bryan and Co., 1876) 23; Springfield City Directory and Business Advertiser, Combined With Directories of New West Springfield, Chicopee, and Chicopee Falls, 1877-78, For the Year commencing July 1st, 1877, comp. Clark W. Bryan and Co. (Springfield: Clark W. Bryan and Co., 1877) 23; Springfield City Directory and Business Advertiser, Combined With Directories of New West Springfield, Chicopee, and Chicopee Falls, 1878-79 For the Year commencing July 1st, 1878, comp. Clark W. Bryan and Co. (Springfield: Clark W. Bryan and Co., 1878) 23; Springfield City Directory and Business Advertiser, Combined With Directories of New West Springfield, Chicopee, and Chicopee Falls, 1879-80 For the Year commencing July 1st, 1879, comp. Clark W. Bryan and Co. (Springfield: Clark W. Bryan and Co., 1879) 25; The City of Springfield, Chicopee, Chicopee Falls, and West Springfield, Directory, for 1880-81, comp. Springfield Printing Co. (Springfield: Springfield Printing Co., 1880) 25; The City of Springfield, Chicopee, Chicopee Falls, and West Springfield, Directory, for 1881-82, comp. Springfield Printing Co. (Springfield: Springfield Printing Co., 1881) 25; "Death of J. G. Chase," Springfield Republican, Saturday, 6 December 1884, p. 6, col. 2.

[23]Jotham is listed as deacon in the following: The City of Springfield, Chicopee, Chicopee Falls, and West Springfield, Directory, for 1881-82, comp. Springfield Printing Co. (Springfield: Springfield Printing Co., 1881) 49; The City of Springfield, Chicopee, Chicopee Falls, and West Springfield, Directory, for 1882-83, comp. Springfield Printing Co. (Springfield: Springfield Printing Co., 1882) 48; The City of Springfield, Chicopee, Chicopee Falls, and West Springfield, Directory, for 1884-85, comp. Springfield Printing Co. (Springfield: Springfield Printing Co., 1885) 40. No city directory for 1883-84 exists. Jotham's work with the choir is mentioned in "Death of J. G. Chase," Springfield Republican, Saturday 6 December 1884, p. 6, col. 2; "Mrs. Cornelia (Savage) Chase" 351.

[24]Information on Sarah Cutts S. G. Thornton Chase comes from her genealogical record in the Genealogical Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and from J[otham]. G[ould]. Chase, A Brief Sketch of a Branch of the Chase Family, a single sheet privately printed, obtained from Charles Lawton, grandson of Thornton Chase (photographic copy in the author's personal papers).

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