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Love's Odyssey:
The Life of Thornton Chase

by Robert Stockman

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Chapter 3

Chapter Three


      The citizens of Springfield opened their newspapers on Monday, the twenty-second of February 1847 to read that "this is the anniversary of WASHINGTON'S Birth day: a day that should forever occupy a leading place in the calendar of every American. Its return is to be celebrated, this year, in many places, by Temperance societies, Military companies, &c." The celebration was made difficult by a winter blizzard; Springfield had received a foot of snow the day before, causing church attendance to be small, and the storm redoubled its vigor on Monday. The heaviest snowfall of the season was followed by the coldest weather. But nature's fury did not cool the spirits prevailing in the house on Main Street where Jotham and Sarah Chase were living, for on that day their son was born.[1]

      Although the child was healthy, the mother who delivered him was not. Neither the death certificate of Sarah Thornton Chase nor a letter written by Jotham Chase to "My dear Thornton" --presumably a brother of Sarah--gives the cause of her death, although the letter makes clear that the cause was complications following childbirth, probably a gradual infection. Jotham's letter notes that for a few days Sarah was "quite comfortable and apparently doing well," although she did experience occasional spasms of pain. The family's two physicians were not greatly concerned and gave her medicine. However, she neither improved nor got worse--until Sunday, 7 March, fourteen days after the delivery, when the spasms of pain became more intense and frequent.[2]

      Sarah saw the attacks of pain as the turning point and called her husband to her bedside so that they could pray together. Jotham recalled that "She then prayed for herself--a part of which I could hear--afterward she said `Blessed Savior, I cannot be half thankful enough to him for his goodness to me'--She then felt I think--that she probably should not live." Sarah asked her husband to write her mother immediately and urge her to come, "if she would see me alive."[3]

      Jotham also called for the physicians, and they again examined her and expressed optimism that she would recover. However, on Monday she experienced further attacks of pain. Her mother arrived on Tuesday. Mrs. Thornton asked her daughter whether "Christ had supported her in her sickness" and she replied "Oh yes--Christ has been close by me all the time." Sarah also expressed much grief that her health had obliged her to neglect her baby.[4]

      Shortly thereafter Sarah slipped into a coma, and in spite of all the physicians did, at 1:30 AM on Wednesday, 10 March 1847 she "quietly left us for the bosom of her Savior."[5] At the age of seventeen days, the infant Thornton Chase had lost his mother.

      Sarah's death put Jotham--thirty-one years old and still struggling to establish himself in business--in the difficult position of having to care for a baby by himself. It is unknown what he did to solve the problem; possibly his sister Harriet, then almost seventeen, came down from Maine to help. She later married a local resident. For Thornton, his mother's death was to have profound consequences; it would not be an exaggeration to say that it became one of the three or four most important events of his life. The survival of the letter describing her death--which Thornton must have acquired from its recipient years later--testifies to its importance to him, as does the existence of two photographs of Sarah taken in 1846, which Thornton later copied and gave to descendants. He also acquired the cross that she had worn on a necklace, visible in the photographs. We have his statement that he later shortened his name to Thornton Chase, dropping the "James Brown" so as to keep "the name of my mother and my father." Finally, we have the mention by Thornton's second wife of his "beautiful Christian mother who gave her life for him, and of his love for her all through life."[6]

      The last statement is important because of what it says about Chase's understanding of his mother and not because of what it says about her. Her Christian piety--judging from her words cited in the letter describing her death--was strong, but not unusual for mid-nineteenth-century America. Saying that she "gave her life for him" conveys part of the meaning that her death held for Thornton, a meaning that is not immediately apparent from what occurred. Finally, we have the assertion of his enduring love for her; and for Thornton Chase, the word love was infused with a special meaning and was as important to him as the words life and religion.

      Psychologists, studying new-born infants, have found that the quality of the maternal relationship is extremely important for a child's subsequent development. Erikson has designated the first developmental crisis faced by an infant as one of "trust versus mistrust"--a time when the baby learns either that the surrounding environment is familiar and worthy of trust, or that it is not.[7] Maternal care and love are crucial factors in establishing a sense of trust, which in turn serves as the foundation for subsequent development. Considering that Thornton Chase's adult life was characterized by a high level of trust, consideration for others, and love, it seems very likely that someone mothered him very effectively. But young Thornton's own inner resources--in Bahá'í terms, his spiritual attributes--must have been of the sort to respond in an exceptional way to such love. While we do not know what tests the infant faced, or how he responded to them, we do know from psychological research that the first few years laid a crucial foundation for Thornton's later development.

      No further information is available on Thornton Chase until May 1850, just after his third birthday. On the twenty-eighth of that month Jotham married Cornelia S. Savage (1821-1901), a prominent citizen of Hartford, Connecticut. Her father was active in civic affairs, was an important businessman in the city, and was one of the first directors of the Aetna Life Insurance Company. Her brother was also rising to prominence in Hartford's business community. An active Baptist, she joined Springfield's First Baptist Church. It may be significant that the only extant biography of Cornelia makes positive statements about the personal qualities of her husband, father, and brother, but says nothing about her own character.[8]

      Jotham and Cornelia moved into a new house. Thornton now had a stepmother. But descendants of Thornton Chase recall that Cornelia "did not like her stepson."[9] It cannot now be determined how the ill feelings between Thornton and Cornelia developed. In a personal letter, written in 1909, Thornton offers the only hint about the impact that Jotham's remarriage had on him: "My childhood was loveless and lonely, as there was neither mother, sister nor brother."[10] Apparently, Cornelia did not constitute a mother for him.

      There is one scrap of evidence suggesting that the animosity between Cornelia and Thornton may have begun within three and a half months of the marriage. The United States census of 1850, taken on 10 September, registered Thornton, aged three, as living with a family in West Springfield, across the Connecticut River from his father's house. The couple, Joseph and Sarah Benson, were working-class people; he was a machinist. They also had a fourteen-year-old boy staying with them whose last name was different from theirs, which suggests that they took in children to supplement their income. It cannot be known how long Thornton stayed in their home, but it may have been a substantial length of time. When he was a teenager, he stayed with yet another family.

      It is possible that there is a connection between Thornton's love for the mother he never knew and his dislike for his stepmother. By the age of three Thornton would have developed a sense of loss for his mother, and the stepmother might have been perceived as an intruder and a competitor for his father's affection. But it is equally possible that Cornelia's dislike of Thornton triggered his dislike for her and his yearning for the love of his mother.

      Thornton's description of his childhood as "loveless" also suggests the possibility that Thornton's later search for love and his passionate quest for God and religion as an adult were partly his reaction to a sad and lonely childhood. Indeed, there may be a connection between Thornton's love for his lost mother and his later emphasis on God as love. Psychologists have found that a child's concept of God may be strongly shaped by his or her "image of the opposite-sex or preferred parent."[11] Possibly the child Thornton's image of his mother, in heaven with the angels and loving him intensely, helped to shape his later image of an intensely loving God. Reinforcing this hypothesis is the remark of a descendant, "I always thought Chase was looking for his mother."[12]

      But one cannot say that Thornton had to react to a sad childhood by becoming religious; another child, in the same situation, could have become an atheist, or could have become hateful instead of loving. Thornton's reaction is a sign of the inner strength and resources that he possessed as a child. Someone--possibly Thornton's Aunt Harriet or Sarah Benson--had loved him enough to bring out these qualities.

      It would be very interesting to know what role Jotham Chase played in rearing Thornton. Thornton's correspondence contains only two references to his father, fewer than those to his mother, suggesting that the two men were not close. Neither reference supplies much information about Thornton and Jotham's relationship. On the one hand, we know that Thornton gave his own son the name of Jotham (five years after the father's death), suggesting that in later life, at least, Thornton may have resolved any negative feelings about his father. Thornton also worked for his father's business for several years. On the other hand, Jotham apparently did not pay for Thornton's college education; he apparently did not help him through several financial crises; he apparently was absent for much of Thornton's childhood; and the father and son must have been out of contact with each other for at least seven years when Jotham died in 1884. The lack of contact suggests that Thornton's father was not the preferred parent--the parent to whom Thornton felt closest. That role was held by Thornton's deceased mother.

      Ten years pass before we have additional information about Thornton Chase. By late 1860, at age thirteen, he was living with another family--that of Samuel Francis Smith (1808-95), a Baptist minister in Newton, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb eighty miles from Springfield. Smith trained Thornton for college, but Springfield had a high school, and private schools were available closer to home than Newton, so one wonders why Thornton was sent so far away. Perhaps he had become unmanageable at home. Probably by 1860 Jotham and Cornelia had begun to adopt children; they eventually adopted three girls, Cora J. (born 22 May 1856), Ada (born 14 December 1858), and Jessie Maria (born 25 November 1859). The last two were sisters.[13] Thornton's descendants report that Cornelia "lavished" her attention on the girls.[14] Such behavior could only have intensified whatever sense of rejection and abandonment that Thornton felt, especially at a time when he was entering the difficult years of adolescence.

      Thornton's only mention of his four years of being tutored by Samuel Francis Smith (in a letter to a virtual stranger) is brief and states the facts, without describing his feelings.[15] However, the startling resemblence between Thornton's later interests and those of Smith suggests that Smith was a significant influence. A more ideal mentor would be difficult to imagine. Judging from his poetry and correspondence, Smith was a tender-hearted man who had a loving marriage and a close relationship with his six children. A colleague called him "preeminently a pastor in every sense of the word."[16] At his funeral he was described by Dr. Alvah Hovey, President of the Newton Bible Institute, as "in doctrine uncorrupt, in language plain, and plain in manner, decent, solemn, chaste and natural in gesture."[17] In short, by the standards of the day he was a good Christian.

      He was also a man of many talents. Born in Boston, he graduated from Harvard College in 1829 as a member of perhaps its most famous class. Among his classmates were Oliver Wendell Holmes, a poet, essayist, professor of anatomy at Harvard, and a lifelong friend; James Freeman Clarke, a famous Transcendentalist and author of America's first classic of comparative religions; Supreme Court Justice Benjamin R. Curtis; and William H. Channing, a famous Unitarian clergyman and Transcendentalist. Smith studied for the ministry at Andover Theological Seminary, which was strict in its Calvinist orthodoxy, graduating in 1832. To pay his way through school, he translated about a thousand pages of a German encyclopedia into English for publication in one of the first encyclopedias in America. In February 1832, when he was twenty-three years old, a friend asked him to translate some German songs into English, and while examining the songbook Smith came across a patriotic song whose tune he liked. Inspired, within half an hour he had composed the words of the song that immortalized him: "America" ("My Country 'Tis of Thee").[18]

      Although Smith's literary and musical skills continued to develop after 1832, nothing else he accomplished won him as much fame as he acquired from that half-hour of work. He continued to write songs, eventually publishing over one hundred and fifty hymns. He also wrote poetry and became an essayist and editor. After graduation he moved to Waterville, Maine, where he was pastor of the local Baptist church and professor of modern languages at Colby College.[19] Eight years later Smith moved to Newton Center, Massachusetts, where he became pastor of its First Baptist Church and, from 1842 to 1848, edited the Baptist quarterly journal, the Christian Review. It was one of the Baptist church's most prominent periodicals, and its editorship would have made him widely known within that denomination.

      In 1854 Smith resigned from the pastorate of the local church to devote all of his time to a new task: editorial secretary of the American Baptist Missionary Union, one of the largest missionary organizations in the United States. In 1863, the last year that Thornton Chase lived with the family, one of Smith's sons went to Burma as a missionary. Eventually Samuel Francis Smith made a round-the-world tour of American missionary projects. He was also an avid linguist; by the time of his death he knew sixteen languages, in addition to English. He continued to write articles for magazines and sermons. He published four books in prose and one of poetry, and edited a hymnbook.[20]

      As a role model, Smith had much to offer young Thornton. During the teenage years, a child passes through a phase of life described by Erikson as identity versus role confusion. It is a time of physical and mental maturation, when an individual explores self-identity through relations with others and through acceptance of beliefs and causes. It is a time when a role model can be crucially important, and, judging from the parallelism between their interests, Smith was important to Thornton. Chase later became a poet, a singer of some ability, an editor, the author of two books and three pamphlets, a traveling teacher for his religion, and a religious leader. He knew Latin, Greek, some French, some Persian, and at one point wanted to study Sanskrit--one of the sixteen languages mastered by Smith. Chase was even offered the editorship of a monthly Bahá'í magazine.

      Religiously, Smith was the epitome of evangelical Protestantism. As such, he would have stressed the necessity for rebirth in Christ in order for one to be saved and almost certainly would have said that only the grace of God could make such rebirth possible; the free will of the potential Christian was not the primary force behind conversion. In the mid-nineteenth century the superiority of Christianity over the "heathen" religions was even taken for granted by most Unitarians, America's most liberal denomination.

      However, Smith also had a broad, even cosmopolitan interest in history, literature, and geography, and this background may have influenced Thornton, setting the stage for his later religious search that included investigation of the religious traditions of all the peoples of the world. Smith even had a love of nature, which may have encouraged Thornton to read the nature mysticism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the other Transcendentalists, of whose religion Smith probably would not have approved (though Smith would have had mutual acquaintances with Transcendentalists). In short, Smith's ideals of education, broadmindedness, and culture probably gave Thornton a foundation of values that ultimately undermined the evangelical Protestant beliefs Smith attempted to inculcate in his young charge. It was a common pattern in the nineteenth century.[21]

      Nothing is known of adolescent Thornton's girlfriends or chums or religious experiences. Possibly Thornton's later interest in music and poetry was first manifested during this period. Later in life Thornton was an intensely sociable and introspective person; music could have served as his first social outlet and as an antidote to loneliness, while poetry may have early stimulated his introspection.

      One piece of information suggests that as a youth Thornton viewed religion as more than just an aesthetic experience; rather, he was concerned about doctrines as well. In 1902, in a stray comment in a letter, Thornton noted that the problem of innocent suffering had been "with me from my youth."[22] Thus, sometime in his teens or twenties, Thornton became interested in religious questions. In the mystical language of Bahá'u'lláh, he had entered the "valley of search."[23] Religious search would eventually dominate his life.

      How often Smith tutored Thornton, and in what subjects, is not known, although Smith must have given him basic knowledge of the subjects that were prerequisite for being accepted to a college. Jotham probably sent Thornton to Smith for the very purpose of ensuring that his son would be accepted by a college and would become a successful businessman, doctor, or lawyer. In 1863 Thornton applied to Brown University in nearby Providence, Rhode Island. It was probably his family's first choice, for it was not only a school of high quality but also a Baptist college, originally established to train Baptist ministers. Smith undoubtedly knew its president and prominent faculty members, because they were important Baptists.

      In July 1863, at the age of sixteen, Thornton took Brown University's standard oral and written admission exams in arithmetic, algebra, ancient and modern geography, English grammar, Greek grammar and literature, and Latin grammar and literature. He passed the exams and was accepted to Brown's freshman class. It was not unusual for a boy to attend a university at such a young age, as Brown's catalogue pointed out:

      The earliest age at which, in general, it will be advantageous for a student to enter the University, is at the completion of the fifteenth year; the President is, however, authorized to matriculate a student at an earlier age, provided sufficient and peculiar reasons exist, and his parent or guardian places him under such moral supervision as is satisfactory to himself.[24]

      Boys were admitted to college at such a young age because in the mid-nineteenth century high schools had not been established everywhere, and the existing private schools varied greatly in their quality. Basic educational standards, such as twelve grades, a standard system for evaluating performance, and required courses, had not been created. Thus, colleges were the only institutions providing a standardized education in the country.

      At first, Thornton intended to attend Brown University in September. However, between July and September he changed his mind about going to college. America was in the middle of the third year of the Civil War. From the first to the third of July, while Thornton prepared for his entrance exams, the Battle of Gettysburg was fought. Like so many teenagers, Thornton was apparently attracted to a cause. Feeling older than his sixteen years, Thornton yearned to join the war effort. College would have to wait.


[1]The Daily Republican, Monday 22 February 1847, p. 3. col. 1; p. 3, col. 2; Tuesday, 23 February 1847, p. 2, col. 3; Wednesday, 24 February 1847, p. 2, col. 4.

[2]J[otham]. G. Chase to "My dear Thornton," 16 March 1847, original in the possession of Charles Lawton, Thornton Chase's grandson; photographic copy in author's personal papers. The letter refers to "the request of your dear Mother that I would write you," and the mother in question appears to be the mother of Sarah as well as of the recipient (she is the only mother referred to in the letter), consequently we may presume Jotham is writing to one of Sarah's brothers. However, all of Sarah's brothers had Thornton as their last name, so it cannot be determined to which one Jotham was writing.

[3]Chase to "My Dear Thornton."

[4]Chase to "My Dear Thornton."

[5]Chase to "My Dear Thrnton."

[6]Obituary of Thornton Chase, Brown Alumni Monthly, 13.7 (Feb. 1913): 190-91. In the late 1980s the cross was in the possession of Charles Lawton, grandson of Thornton Chase; he acquired it from Jessamine, Thornton's daughter. Star of the West 3.12 (16 Oct. 1912): 6. Mrs. Chase mentioned Thornton's mother in remarks she made to Bahá'ís gathered at a memorial service for Thornton, a few weeks after his death.

[7]Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society, 2d ed. (N.Y.: Norton, 1963) 247-51.

[8]The date of the marriage comes from John Carroll Chase and George Walter Chamberlain, Seven Generations of the Descendants of Aquila and Thomas Chase (Haverhill, Mass.: Record Publishing Co., 1928) 239. Information on Cornelia Savage Chase comes from "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 and Co., 1901) 351-52.

[9]Thornton Chase Nelson [great grandson of Thornton Chase] to the author, 24 September 1980, 3, author's personal papers.

[10]Thornton Chase to Julia Culver (copy), 27 May 1909, 1, TC.

[11]Ana-Marie Rizzuto, The Birth of the Living God (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979) 5.

[12]Personal Interview of Margaret Hansen, Thornton Chase's granddaughter, by Robert H. Stockman, 30 August 1985, author's personal papers.

[13]Obituary of Thornton Chase, in the Brown Alumni Monthly 190; "Mrs. Cornelia (Savage) Chase" 352.

[14]Thornton Chase Nelson to the author, 8 September 1980, 3, author's personal papers.

[15]Obituary of Thornton Chase, Brown Alumni Monthly 190.

[16]Anonymous note attached to "Thousands Pause as `America' is Wafted from Old Church Tower," The Boston Journal, Thursday, 22 October 1908, newspaper clipping in the Samuel F. Smith folder, Quinquennial file, Harvard University Archives.

[17]"Eternal Sleep. Venerable Dr. S. F. Smith is Laid to Rest. . . ," Boston Journal, Wednesday, 20 November 1895, Samuel F. Smith folder, Quinquennial file, Harvard University Archives.

[18]"Dr. Smith's Life," article attached to a Harvard College Library clipping sheet, Samuel F. Smith folder, Quinquennial file, Harvard University Archives; "Author of `America' Dead," newspaper clipping in the Samuel F. Smith folder, Quinquennial file, Harvard University Archives.

[19]"Autobiography of Samuel F. Smith," in Harvard Graduates' Magazine 4.15 (Mar. 1896): 345-48.

[20]"Smith, Samuel Francis," in the Dictionary of American Biography, ed. Dumas Malone (New York: Scribner's, 1935) 27:342.

[21]Curiously, one of Samuel Francis Smith's grandsons also became a Bahá'í. There is no evidence he knew Thornton Chase. See "James F. Morton," by M. H. [Marian Haney?], in The Bahá'í World: A Biennial International Record, vol. 9, 1940-1944 (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Committee, 1945) 629-30.

[22]Thornton Chase to `Abdu'l-Bahá (copy), 12 May 1902, TC.

[23]Bahá'u'lláh, The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys, trans. Marzieh Gail (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1978) 5. Bahá'u'lláh describes spiritual growth as passing through a series of seven valleys. One does not have to pass through them sequentially but can repeat any valley at any time; thus Bahá'u'lláh's approach to spirituality is far less hierarchical than that of developmental psychology. The valleys Bahá'u'lláh describes are those of search, love, knowledge, unity, contentment, wonderment, and true poverty and absolute nothingness.

[24]A Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Brown University, 1867-68 (n.p., n.d.) 19.

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