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Love's Odyssey:
The Life of Thornton Chase

by Robert Stockman

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Chapter 6

Chapter Six


      After his business failed, Thornton searched for work, but a suitable job was hard to find. Desperate, with Annie's "consent and advice," he traveled to Boston on 20 August 1872, hoping to find employment in the capital city of the state.[1] His luck there was little better; he could find work, but nothing that was permanent, and nothing that would earn enough to pay for two residences. He visited Springfield frequently. The separation must have been a strain on Thornton and Annie's marriage, but Thornton later said that he continued to be on "intimate and loving terms" with his wife.[2]

      Thornton's arrival in Boston was poorly timed. On 9 and 10 November 1872 much of downtown burned in one of the biggest fires the city ever experienced. The fire created construction jobs, but the white-collar work that Thornton sought would have suffered.

      The year 1873 brought further misfortunes. In September the collapse of railroad investment sent stock market prices tumbling and triggered the "Panic of 1873," America's first major economic depression. At its worst point, an estimated thirty percent of the Massachusetts labor force was unemployed at some time during the year.[3] The economic downturn lasted six years, not ending until 1878. Thornton found himself one of tens of thousands looking for work and could have little hope of finding any.

      Thornton did occasionally obtain work. The Springfield city directory for 1873 lists him as an "express agent."[4] He probably held the job in Boston, since by his own account he was not residing in Springfield at the time (although his wife and child were, hence the entry in the directory). Thornton's salary usually was about nine dollars per week and never exceeded fifteen dollars per week, a level of income that was barely adequate to support a family.[5]

      To complicate matters further, Thornton's wife became pregnant again. The child, Jessamine Allyn Chase, was born on 13 April 1874. Now Thornton had two infant daughters to support, as well as a wife and probably a mother-in-law. His desperation for a livelihood could only have increased.

      Thornton Chase rarely spoke about his personal life in his letters and talks, but he did mention one event that occurred in Boston in 1873 or 1874, because it was one of the three or four most important events in his life. His description is tantalizing because of its briefness:

I was very, very poor. . . . [The experience] remained with me all my life, and it has been the motive that has caused me to be a student of comparative religions, as I have been for thirty-five years also, and my whole time, outside of earning my bread and butter, has been devoted to those studies.[6]

      Clearly, whatever Chase experienced was very powerful, and it set him on a new course: he became an active student of religions. In a letter to a Bahá'í, written in 1909, he described an experience that was probably the one he had in Boston. It cannot be proved that it is a description of the same experience, but both descriptions stressed the event as extremely significant for his life, and both describe it as have followed a time of great difficulty. These similarities suggest that the two accounts refer to the same event.

      Thornton Chase was replying to a Bahá'í woman who had written him about a vision she had experienced. This prompted him to describe his own:

I am very glad you have sent me this information as I had feared that your experience had been of a different nature, but you have related my own experience of many years ago, one which sustained me in every trial, doubt, suffering and danger through all these years "which are but an instant."

      That experience came in a time of pain and extreme soul suffering, and saved me from destruction. The same utter love, love unspeakable because it is not of this plane of experience or existence; a perfect evanescense [sic], an absolute oneness, the actual "Nirvana." And the following "walking on air"; the exhilaration and joy in the midst of grief and pain; the all-embracing love of human kind; while drinking the dregs of misery I was feeding on the food of Heaven. And after weeks, yes months, it faded away and became a sweet memory, an assurance of LOVE, which guarded my soul from destruction and guided my steps ever toward the LORD.

      The only difference I perceive between your experience and mine was that my experience was in the presence of a Man, not one of the opposite sex [a woman]. It was the Christ. But I cannot, after reading your description, I cannot believe that sex entered into your experience, because you describe that which I know, and it is sexless. It is One ness; it is "Love divine all love excelling"; it is "irrespective of personality." It is not self-created but the Gift of God. It is not the completion of an ideal, for the human has not the power to idealize nor to conceive what is above his plane. It is a glimpse of heaven, a foretaste of divine joy. It comes to sufferers.[7]

      That the vision followed a time of "pain and extreme soul searching" and came to a "sufferer" is consistent with the theory that it occurred during Thornton's time of desperate unemployment in Boston in 1873 or 1874. Indeed, it must have occurred in one of those times that some psychologists describe as "shipwreck," for Thornton's marriage, occupation, career plans, family ties, even his ability to find meaning in life must have been on the brink of destruction. In short, the challenges of intimacy and generativity appeared to be a complete failure; isolation and stagnation loomed. Under such circumstances, many people become mentally ill or commit suicide; the reference to the vision saving him "from destruction" suggests that he may have contemplated suicide.

      At such a low point in his life--a "dark night of the soul," students of mysticism call it--Thornton experienced a breakthrough. In terms of Erikson's psychology, it was an experience of divine intimacy that overwhelmed the threat of isolation. Thornton could only characterize the experience as coming from God. As he put it, it was a "glimpse of heaven" and above the plane of human experience. It was an act of God's grace.

      To call his experience a vision is slightly misleading because it was not visual as much as it was affective. True, Thornton does say he was in the presence of a Man (with a capital "m") whom he says was "the Christ" (not just Christ, but "the Christ"; by this Thornton presumably refers to the divine spirit that not only filled Christ but also filled Bahá'u'lláh, prophet of the Bahá'í Faith). But it is significant that Chase never describes the Man as doing or saying anything, nor does he describe a meeting or a setting for the experience. Rather, he focuses exclusively on a feeling, an "utter love, love unspeakable." Apparently he understood his experience as a union with God; this is probably what "an absolute oneness" and "the actual `Nirvana'" describe.

      But Thornton felt more than God's love for him; he also experienced his own "all-embracing love of human kind." As such his vision was unique, because it empowered him to reach out to others, to transcend his isolation in spite of his pain. An intense love for others and a yearning to serve them would subsequently become one of the principal characteristics of Thornton's personality.

      The vision's focus on love is even more remarkable when one remembers Thornton's "loveless and lonely" childhood. Rather than withdraw from others, as some children would do, Thornton became an intense lover of others. His lack of love stimulated greater love; his love for his lost mother became transformed and redirected into a love of God. Viewed in this light, his vision may be seen as yet another example of the remarkable inner resources that he possessed.

      One would like to know away from what Thornton's vision redirected his religious loyalties. As a Bahá'í he criticized the Calvinism of his father's church as being strong on God's wrath and damnation, but weak on God's love. Before his vision he may not have perceived this as a weakness in evangelical Protestantism. However, the few references to Thornton's religious activity before the vision all center on music, suggesting the possibility that church was primarily an aesthetic experience for him. We do not know whether he ever felt a religious devotion to a church.

      After the vision it would seem that Thornton largely abandoned evangelical doctrines; he continued to attend churches, but they were places where he could sing or conduct choirs. He says that he embarked on a new kind of search for truth and love, which involved comparative religion. Thus it would not be inaccurate to call the vision a conversion experience. Thornton was not converted to a particular ideology but rather to a value--love of God--and to a commitment to search the faiths of humanity for the religion that best embodied that love. The seed sown by this commitment did not reach fruition until twenty years later, when Thornton became a Bahá'í. Thornton himself interprets his vision as the beginning of his quest for the Bahá'í Faith when he says that the experience "guided my steps ever toward the LORD."

      Bahá'u'lláh, in his mystical work The Seven Valleys, says that after the Valley of Search comes the Valley of Love, where "the heaven of ecstasy is upraised and the world-illumining sun of yearning shineth, and the fire of love is ablaze." The Valley of Love perfectly describes Thornton's experience. But Bahá'u'lláh notes ominously that "the steed of this Valley is pain; and if there be no pain this journey will never end."[8] This promise proved true as well.

      Whether his mystical experience was the hallucination of an ill mind, the positive response of a tested soul, or an act of grace--or all three--Thornton made the vision into a major turning point in his life. The experience did not mark the end of his suffering; on the contrary, it marked only the beginning. But the vision gave him hope, strength, and the ability to endure. Its sweetness and assurance lingered in his life and became the foundation for a steadfastness of faith--a quality for which `Abdu'l-Bahá later singled Thornton out--and for the love of all existence that became Thornton's very being.


[1]James B. T. Chase to Newport Superior Court, Newport, R.I., 12 February 1878, in the divorce record of Annie E. L. Chase and James B. T. Chase, Court Records of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Providence College Library, Providence, R.I. (copy in author's personal papers).

[2]James B. T. Chase to Newport Superior Court.

[3]Alexander Keyssar, Out of Work: The First Century of Unemployment in Massachusetts (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986) 52.

[4]Springfield City Directory and Business Advertiser for 1873-74. For the Year Commencing June 1, 1873. (Springfield: Clark W. Bryan and Co., 1873) 188.

[5]James B. T. Chase to Newport Superior Court, 12 February 1878. Alexander Keyssar, Out of Work, 45, indicates that an income of $600 to $700 per year (in 1885), which would equal about thirteen dollars per week, was above the average for factory workers but was barely adequate to support a family.

[6]Transcript of a conversation with Thornton Chase, TS, 33, TC.

[7]Thornton Chase to Louise Waite, 1 September 1909 (copy), 1-2, TC.

[8]Bahá'u'lláh, The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys, trans. Marzieh Gail (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1945) 8.

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