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Love's Odyssey:
The Life of Thornton Chase

by Robert Stockman

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Chapter 21

Chapter Twenty-One


      Because Thornton Chase had been in reasonably good general health, his death was totally unexpected. In addition to grief, Eleanor Chase faced destitution, for Thornton had been the sole means of support for her and her mother, and--ironically--had not purchased life insurance. Fortunately, Thornton Jr. had graduated from Dartmouth College in June 1912 and had a job; but to support herself, Eleanor obtained a veteran's widow's pension and eventually took a job as a sorority mother at the University of Washington. Later, she moved in with her son and his wife. She died at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, on 12 August 1933.[1]

      The American Bahá'í community, also, was grief-stricken by Thornton Chase's passing. Memorial gatherings were held in many places and were annually repeated for many years after Thornton's death. Star of the West, the American Bahá'ís' monthly magazine, contains more descriptions of Thornton Chase's life and death, and of memorial services in his honor, than of any other American Bahá'í.

      In a sense, the American Bahá'ís' first tribute to Thornton Chase came before he died, at the annual convention of the Bahai Temple Unity, on Sunday, 28 April 1912. The convention resolved to send a greeting to "Mr. Thornton Chase, now in Los Angeles, but whose spirit is manifest by the effect of his early teaching and devotion, all present rising in recognition."[2] In this way, the American Bahá'í community acknowledged his services.

      After Thornton's death, several tributes were published. The Reverend Dr. David Buchanan wrote:

      Thornton Chase was a noble-minded and a large-hearted man. He understood the spiritual meaning of the Bahai life and had attained a height in his own experience reached by few. . . . Every one loved him because he was a supremely lovable man. He knew Abdul-Baha as but few knew him, and to have passed away on the eve of the arrival of the one he loved so much is one of the mysteries we can never solve. Thornton Chase had a mind deeply spiritual as well as philosophical and had a profound grasp of the Bahai movement.[3]

      One of Thornton's closest friends, Arthur Agnew, offered a particularly moving eulogy:

      He was a man of great loving character, with a heart that drew to him warm friends and a love which seemed to reach out, surround and envelop you.

      Oh friend! when we consider thy loving heart, we do not feel that thou art separated from us. It seems that we should more naturally write to thee than of thee. Continue thou thine efforts for the good of the souls of men an hundredfold now that thou art free in the realms of might and power. Be nearer to the hearts of those in trouble and distress and cease not from thy labors until all the souls of men have come into Peace and Love, and mayest thou always be in the fullness of happiness and joy in nearness to thy Lord and in His good will and pleasure.[4]

      Yet the greatest tribute of all was paid to Thornton Chase by the one whom he loved so much, `Abdu'l-Bahá. On 30 September `Abdu'l-Bahá was taking the train to San Francisco. He presumably learned of Thornton's death the next morning, on arrival in San Francisco. In his first public appearance on 4 October, he reflected on the considerable difficulties that Thornton had experienced during the last few years of his life and on the meaning of his sudden and seemingly premature death:

This revered personage was the first Bahai in America. He served the Cause faithfully and his services will ever be remembered throughout future ages and cycles. He has written many books in this Cause and they will be studied carefully by the coming generations. He traveled once to Acca and there we associated with each other for several days. Indeed he became free from the troubles of this world. No matter how long he might have remained here, he would have met nothing else but trouble. The purpose of life is to get certain results; that is, the life of man must bring forth certain fruitage. It does not depend upon the length of the life. As soon as the life is crowned with fruition then it is completed, although that person may have a short life. . . . Praise be to God! the tree of Mr. Chase's life brought forth fruit. It gave complete fruit, therefore he is free. He attained eternal rest. He is now in the presence of BAHA'O'LLAH.

Apparently `Abdu'l-Bahá also told the San Francisco Bahá'ís that Thornton's grave should be visited annually.[5]

      Because He was exhausted, `Abdu'l-Bahá had not originally intended to visit any places outside the San Francisco Bay area. But Thornton's death changed his plans. `Abdu'l-Bahá had already missed Thornton's funeral; a beautiful service had been held on 4 October, after which Thornton was laid to rest in Inglewood Cemetery. Nevertheless, `Abdu'l-Bahá decided to pay his respects to the first American Bahá'í. As `Abdu'l-Bahá later explained to the Bahá'ís in Oakland, "I would not have gone to Los Angeles had it not been to visit the tomb of Mr. Thornton Chase."[6] `Abdu'l-Bahá left San Francisco for Los Angeles on Friday, 18 October, and visited Thornton's grave on Saturday afternoon, 19 October. He then took a train back to San Francisco on Monday, 21 October.

      Twenty-five Bahá'ís accompanied `Abdu'l-Bahá to Thornton Chase's grave. According to `Abdu'l-Bahá's secretary, Mamúd-i-Zarqání, `Abdu'l-Bahá walked straight to the gravesite without asking its whereabouts. He praised the beauty and verdure of the cemetery, then adorned the grave with flowers "with a love and affection which struck the bystanders with astonishment."[7] After chanting a prayer, `Abdu'l-Bahá revealed a prayer about Thornton:

      O my God! O my God! Verily, this is a servant of Thine, who did believe on Thee and in Thy signs; verily he harkened to Thy summons, turned to Thy Kingdom, humbled himself at Thy holy threshold, was possessed of a contrite heart, arose to serve Thy cause, to spread Thy fragrances, to promote Thy word, and to expound Thy wisdom.

      Verily he guided the people to Thine ancient pathway, and led them to Thy way of rectitude. Verily he held the chalice of guidance in his right hand and gave unto those athirst to drink of the cup of Thy favor. He presented himself at Thy lofty threshold, where he laid his brow on the fragrant soil of Thy garden and circumambulated Thy all-glorious and sublime abode, the traces of which are wide-spread and the fragrances of whose loyalty are sensed everywhere. Later he returned to these vast and extensive countries and proclaimed Thy name amongst the people, until his respiration ceased and his outward sensation was suspended, returning to Thee with a heart throbbing with Thy love and with an eye opened in Thy direction.

      O Lord! O Lord! Submerge him in the ocean of Thy glory. O Lord! O Lord! Usher him into Thy delectable garden. O Lord! O Lord! Usher him into Thy lofty paradise and cause him to be present in Thy meeting of transfiguration. O Lord! Submerge him in the ocean of Thy lights.

      Verily, Thou art the Clement! Verily, Thou art the Merciful, the Precious, the Omnipotent![8]

      `Abdu'l-Bahá then offered a eulogy in which he praised Thornton as patient and long-suffering. He said Chase had an "illuminated" heart and that he had "witnessed the lights of the Kingdom of ABHA, and he was guided by the lights of Guidance." He reiterated the importance of Bahá'ís' visiting Thornton's grave and urged them to bring flowers there "on my behalf." He stressed that "the traces of this personage will ever shine" and that people "will honor this grave." He even added that the Bahá'ís must have "utmost consideration for the members of his family."[9] Finally, he kissed the gravestone.[10]

      In Los Angeles, `Abdu'l-Bahá gave two talks that mentioned Thornton. At the second he urged the Bahá'ís to commemorate Chase's death annually not only by visiting his grave but also by spreading "a feast for the poor and giv[ing] charity to those deprived."[11] He also met privately with Eleanor Chase. He repeated to her many of his previous statements about Thornton--for example, he again reiterated that Thornton's "value is not known, but will be in the future"--and he sought to comfort her:

I was exceedingly sad and heart-broken when I heard of the departure of Mr. Chase, for I loved him very much. . . . Be not sad nor grieved. Do not sorrow, for no man in this world is permanent. As there was a day for him to come, there is a day for him to leave. . . . Mr. Chase was heavenly. Mr. Chase was spiritual. Mr. Chase was radiant. You have not lost him. At most, there is now a temporary separation between you. In the Kingdom there will be a meeting. It is precisely like taking a journey. You will meet him. Do not sorrow. . . . Certain souls come and believe, and leave behind them an eternal light or radiance, which is the equivalent to a candle that never goes out. . . . You should be comforted. Thus may the spirit of Mr. Chase be pleased with your patience and forbearance. If you were sad, he would be sad, and you would not want to make him sad, too.[12]

      Thornton Chase's value can best be understood when one considers the importance of the qualities he exemplified. `Abdu'l-Bahá's sister, Bahíyyih Khánum, offers one insight when she describes steadfastness, the trait Thornton Chase particularly epitomized:

      Steadfastness is a treasure that makes a man so rich as to have no need of the world or any person or any thing that is therein. Constancy is a special joy, that leads us mortals on to lofty heights, great progress, and the winning of the perfections of Heaven. All praise be to the Beloved's holy court, for granting this most wondrous grace to His faithful people, and to His favored ones, this best of gifts.[13]

      Bahá'u'lláh, also, offers a glimpse into the nature of Thornton's spiritual achievement, and the ecstasy that it brought to him, when he describes God's call to the attracted souls and its transforming power:

Give ear unto that which the Spirit imparteth unto thee in the days of God, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting, that His Call may attract thee to the Summit of transcendent glory and draw thee nigh unto the Station where thou shalt behold thine entire being set ablaze with the fire of the love of God in such wise that neither the ascendancy of the rulers nor the whisperings of their vassals can quench it, and thou wilt arise amidst the peoples of the world to celebrate the praise of thy Lord, the Possessor of Names. This is that which well beseemeth thee in this Day.[14]

      In this passage Bahá'u'lláh could just as easily have been describing Thornton Chase, whose being was indeed "set ablaze with the fire of the love of God," and who did indeed "arise. . . to celebrate the praise" of his Lord. It is in this spiritual sense that Thornton Chase was indeed the Occident's first Bahá'í and a lighthouse to all future generations to follow in their own odysseys to learn the mysteries of the love of God.


[1]Eleanor Chase's application for a veteran's widow's pension may be found in the United States Government Archives, Washington, D.C.; her date of death is given in Captain Thornton Chase [Jr.] to the Disbursing Clerk, Veteran's Administration, 26 January 1934, United States Government Archives. A photograph of her and the sorority for whom she worked is in the possession of Thornton Chase Nelson.

[2]Joseph H. Hannen, "The Public Meetings of the Fourth Annual Convention of Bahai Temple Unity," Star of the West 3.4 (17 May 1912): 32.

[3]Rev. David Buchanan, "A Tribute from Portland, Oregon," in Star of the West 3.12 (16 Oct. 1912): 6.

[4]Arthur S. Agnew, "A Tribute from Chicago," in Star of the West 3.12 (16 Oct. 1912): 7.

[5]Mirza Ahmad Sohrab, "Abdul-Baha at the Grave of Thornton Chase," in Star of the West 3.13 (4 Nov. 1912): 14.

[6]Mamúd-i-Zarqání, Mahmoud's Diary, TS, 387, Green Acre Bahá'í School Library, Eliot, Maine.

[7]Mamúd-i-Zarqání, Mahmud's Diary, 392.

[8]Mirza Ahmad Sohrab, "Abdul-Baha at the Grave of Thornton Chase," in Star of the West 3.13 (4 Nov. 1912): 15.

[9]Mirza Ahmad Sohrab, "Abdul-Baha at the Grave of Thornton Chase" 15.

[10]Mamúd-i-Zarqání, Mahmud's Diary 392.

[11]H. C. W. [Harriet M. Wise?], "First Anniversary of the Passing of Thornton Chase: Los Angeles Bahais hold services in their Assembly Hall and at his grave," Star of the West 4.13 (4 Nov. 1913): 225.

[12]"Words of `Abdu'l-Bahá to Mrs. Thornton Chase, at Hotel Lankershim, Los Angeles, California, October 19, 1912," TS, copy in author's personal papers.

[13]Bahíyyih Khánum, in Bahíyyih Khánum, The Greatest Holy Leaf: A Compilation from Bahá'í Sacred Texts and Writings of the Guardian of the Faith and Bahíyyih Khánum's Own Letters, comp. Research Department of the Universal House of Justice (Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1982) 148.

[14]Bahá'u'lláh, Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh Revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, comp. Research Department of the Universal House of Justice and trans. Habib Taherzadeh (Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1978) 265.

Appendix One


      The Thornton Chase Papers are the most thorough source of information about Thornton Chase, as well as one of the most detailed sources of information about the American Bahá'í community. Filling eleven archival boxes, the papers feature carbon copies of the typed letters that Thornton Chase sent to others, plus Chase's incoming correspondence. In addition, Thornton Chase kept typed copies of every tablet of `Abdu'l-Bahá that he could locate, and he included translation information on the copies whenever he could; thus the Thornton Chase Papers are an invaluable resource for dating `Abdu'l-Bahá's correspondence (usually the Persian originals are undated). Thornton also kept typed copies of talks by Isabella Brittingham, Mírzá Asadu'lláh, Mírzá Abu'l-Fal, and himself, providing an opportunity to study the thought of these individuals.

      The Thornton Chase Papers are not complete. The first round of destruction of items was conducted by his wife soon after his death. In a letter to Helen Goodall, a San Francisco Bahá'í, Eleanor noted that

      It has taken all my strength to go through these papers--Fifteen hundred letters, I have burned--personal letters--

      Dear Thornton, never gave up anything, in way of letters, clippings, visions, diaries, etc--[1]

Apparently Eleanor Chase destroyed the diaries, thereby eliminated a primary source for reconstructing Thornton's life and spiritual development.

      Within a month of Thornton's death, John Bosch arrived in Los Angeles to pick up Thornton's Bahá'í correspondence and papers, for Thornton had named Bosch his literary executor. Bosch and Eleanor Chase packed up the remaining papers, and he took them to his home in Geyserville, California. Eventually the papers were sent to the National Bahá'í Archives, probably after the death of John and Louise Bosch in the mid-1940s. The second round of destruction of the Thornton Chase Papers was conducted by the Bosches, and was described by Louise Bosch in a letter to Mrs. Carl Scheffler:

      Mr. Chase's letters to the people, if nothing else, would constitute his memorial. He kept a copy of every letter he ever wrote. He also kept every scrap of paper he ever received. These letters filled boxes and boxes. Many of these letters we have destroyed by reason of the private nature of their contents. That is to say, my husband and I destroyed them.

      Then also all of Assad'ullah's and of Fareed's correspondence with Mr. Chase we have destroyed. We have kept only letters of spiritual import.[2]

      The destruction of the letters by Asadu'lláh and Fareed was carried out because both men rebelled against the Bahá'í Faith a year after Chase's death. However, destroying the letters has only made a study of their personalities more difficult, and thus makes it harder to understand why they acted as they did. Apparently the Bosches destroyed many other letters Chase received; the papers contain only sixty-eight letters he received, but 488 letters that he sent, and usually he wrote in reply to a letter sent to him. No letters to Chase from Isabella Brittingham, Arthur Agnew, Carl Scheffler, or Willard Hatch exist, even though Thornton wrote them often, and usually he refers to a letter he had just received. Probably the Bosches decided that the incoming correspondence was not "spiritual" enough and destroyed it. Isabella Brittingham's letters, which often spoke about the troubles in the New York Bahá'í community (judging from Chase's replies to her), are a particularly lamentable loss.

      The destruction of much of the Thornton Chase Papers is particularly unfortunate because some of the letters that survive bear signs of Thornton's editing of them for posterity. For example, the third page of P. M. Blake to Thornton Chase, 7 March 1900, is missing, and the fourth page has a note later added in Thornton's hand that explains it was about "a small proposed loan from the Co. Thornton." A letter from `Abdu'l-Karím-i-ihrání, dated 19 April 1901, mentions that a tablet by `Abdu'l-Bahá had been sent to Thornton Chase a week earlier; Thornton later wrote on the letter "it never was received." In 1905 he wrote a letter to suggest revisions to an author who submitted some works to the Bahai Publishing Society; Thornton later wrote on the letter "this offended."[3] These editings are clear indications that Thornton Chase intentionally preserved his correspondence for posterity. Yet in spite of the destruction, a substantial Thornton Chase legacy remains.


[1]Eleanor F. Chase to Helen Goodall, undated, Helen Goodall Papers, National Bahá'í Archives, Wilmette, Ill. The letter mentions that John Bosch had just arrived to pack up Thornton Chase's Bahá'í correspondence, which dates the letter to October 1912.

[2]Louise Bosch to Mrs. Scheffler (copy), 11 June 1935, author's personal papers.

[3]P. M. Blake to Thornton Chase, 7 March 1900, 4, TC; `Abdu'l-Karím-i-ihrání to Thornton Chase, 19 April 1901, TC; Thornton Chase to Mrs. Louise Waite (copy), 22 October 1905, 4, TC.

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