A strong-willed leader and organizer, and a seeker forever pursuing the mysteries of divine love; an insurance salesman and an artist of page and stage who composed poetry and prose, sang and acted; a man who wrestled with a wariness of women and a unifier of contending personalities: this was Thornton Chase. The man we know as the first U.S. Baha’i was fraught with apparent contradictions, the contradictions of a spiritual being striving to operate in this material realm. Of course, it was only through his struggles that Chase could earn from Abdu’l-Baha the title of “Thabit” (in Persian, “Sabet,” and in English, “the steadfast”). And God did not stint when it came to testing Chase, starting in his infancy and continuing for six decades until his death.
In his first three decades, Chase faced multiple crises. His mother died shortly after he was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, on a freezing day on 22 February 1847. His father remarried, but apparently Chase and his stepmother clashed, and the boy was sent to live with unrelated caretakers. Following a lonely childhood, the teenage Chase enlisted to fight in the Civil War for the Union. After the war ended, he gave college a try, but quickly lost interest.
He found a stronger interest in a woman, Annie. The newlyweds soon welcomed first one daughter, then another. Chase, in his mid-twenties, was now a breadwinner—but, due to both personal and national economic setbacks, he struggled to earn a living. With Annie’s blessing, he departed Massachusetts to seek employment, first in Wisconsin, then Illinois, then Kansas, then Colorado. Sadly, he still failed to support his young family, and on those grounds, Annie divorced him in 1878.
These were years of heartbreak for Chase, as he found himself again without family. But it is often tribulations that motivate spiritual seeking, and this seems to have been the case for Chase. Though he was born into an evangelical Protestant family with Puritan roots, and he ardently loved Jesus Christ, Chase felt dissatisfied. During his dark years of financial and marital distress, he had a spiritual experience—an indescribable feeling of being enveloped by God’s love—that seems to have motivated him to investigate other religions.
Chase found a respite from his material suffering when, in 1880, he remarried. With his new bride, Eleanor, by his side, he enjoyed growing success in his creative enterprises in Colorado. Of course, the arts seldom guarantee the income needed by a family man, so, in 1888, he accepted a position with a life insurance company. He quickly rose through the ranks thanks to his managerial abilities. His newfound professional success was complemented by the arrival of a son after he and Eleanor had struggled to conceive for nearly a decade. Here was a second chance at fatherhood.
While material wellbeing can sometimes sidetrack a person from their spiritual search, miring them in complacency, such was not the case with Chase. In these years, he experimented with the Swedenborgian church, teachings on reincarnation inspired by the ancient Eastern religions, hypnotism, and likely sundry other traditions. None, however, slaked his spiritual thirst.
In 1893, Chase’s job fortuitously required he move to Chicago. There, he heard about the first known mention of the Baha’i Faith on U.S. soil, which occurred at the World’s Parliament of Religions. He began searching for more information and likely read the works of E. G. Browne. Soon, he met an actual Baha’i, a Lebanese man named Ibrahim Kheiralla who, despite his tenuous grasp on Baha’i teachings, managed to attract a number of Americans to the Baha’i Faith. Chase enrolled as a Baha’i in 1895.
Over the next decade, the nascent Baha’i community nearly collapsed, a context that makes Chase’s steadfastness all the more admirable. The first U.S. Baha’is had no access to the Writings of Baha’u’llah, relying on the Bible and Kheiralla’s syncretic teachings. Communication with Abdu’l-Baha, after it was established in 1898, was constrained by linguistic differences as well as by the distance between the U.S. and Middle East. Then, Kheiralla rebelled against Abdu’l-Baha, leaving the Baha’i Faith in 1900 and bringing a number of Baha’is with him. Even after the turmoil around Kheiralla subsided, there remained tensions between the Baha’is over issues both theological (Was the Baha’i Faith a loose philosophy or a new revelation and organized religion?) and practical (Were women allowed to lead? Should White and Black Baha’is mix?).
Chase helped guide the U.S. Baha’is through these trials. Though he felt dejected and even physically sickened by the community’s disunity, he persevered. For almost a decade, he led an administrative body elected from the Chicago Baha’i men that had both a local and national purview.1 It was this body that spearheaded the creation of the Baha’i House of Worship for North America. Chase’s understanding of Baha’i consultation enabled him to unify his fellow leaders, and his logistical abilities ensured their ideas were translated into action.
As he fought to keep the U.S. Baha’i community intact, Chase’s bastion was Abdu’l-Baha. They exchanged many letters over the years; often Chase poured out his heartache to his beloved, who responded with words of wisdom and encouragement. All the while, Chase longed to meet Abdu’l-Baha in person, but for years, pilgrimage eluded him. Finally, in 1907, Chase’s dream was fulfilled, and he spent five precious days with Abdu’l-Baha.
You can read about Chase’s pilgrimage in his book, In Galilee, which he soon followed with another tome, The Baha’i Revelation. Chase’s inebriation with the Baha’i teachings seems to have inspired him to pick up his pen again after a long hiatus. Indeed, beyond authoring a number of texts about the Faith, he edited English translations of Baha’i scripture and helped found the organization that is today known as the U.S. Baha’i Publishing Trust.
Publishing and distributing Baha’i texts was crucial to bringing together the national community, an objective Chase also served by using his business travels to meet with Baha’is around the country. His efforts did not go unnoticed by his company, which demoted him in an effort to quash his Baha’i activities. As the sole provider for Eleanor, their son, and her mother, Chase had no choice but to accept the inferior position, which halved his salary and forced him to move to California.
Chase, while distraught to leave the Chicago Baha’is, forged ahead with Baha’i community-building efforts in his new home of Los Angeles, bringing about the area’s first administrative body even as his own body began to break down. Once again, he proved his worth as Abdu’l-Baha’s emissary of steadfastness.
It was in the City of Angels that Chase died on 30 September 1912, just as his beloved Abdu’l-Baha was approaching California on His North American odyssey. The timing appears tragic—but in a way, it blessed the U.S. Baha’is with a sacred spot, for Abdu’l-Baha designated Chase’s grave a pilgrimage destination and revealed a prayer for his soul, which portrays him returning to God “with a heart throbbing with Thy love and with an eye opened to Thy direction.”
Chase combined cosmic love with earthly action, thus walking the mystical path with practical feet. This steadfast seeker’s footfalls resound in his writings. Let’s conclude with a poem he wrote in 1883, which, drawing upon the Gospel story of Christ and the Apostle Peter, bursts with love for God and His Manifestations:
“Lovest thou Me?” The might [sic] Lord of Love
Spake to the fisher by fair Galilee
The waves grew bright, and, swelling up the beach,
Sought but to touch his garment’s hem, or reach
The print, his sandals made: The trembling trees
Shivered with conscious joy, and happy bees,
Crooning and nestling at the lily’s heart,
Wondered to find that it could tears impart.
“Lovest thou Me?” The tender, thrilling words,
Swift zephyrs hastened from his lips to seize,
And bear aloft thro’ space. The wandering birds,
Filling the air with rival harmonies,
Like winged thoughts, came flashing down to earth,
And gentle beasts, from plains of grassy worth
Drawn by the wooing music of his voice,
Gathered about their Maker to rejoice.
“Lovest thou Me?” The humbled fisher heard
The words, thrice uttered, and his heart was stirred
With mingled grief and joy and bitter shame.
Thrice had his voice denied his Master’s name,
Crying—“I know Him not!”—and thrice, ere dawn,
The crowing cock accused the faithless one.
Now, thrice, repentant, he, his soul outpoured—
“Thou knowest that I love Thee, O my Lord!”
Almost a score of centuries—since then,
The greybeard sexton, Time, has deep entombed;
And still the question tries the hearts of men,
Searching for Love in souls, by Truth illumed.
When fortune smiles and life seems good to live,
“Lovest thou Me?” asks He, who all doth give:
When stern afflictions throng and sorely test,
“Lovest thou Me?” cries He, who knoweth best.
The harmony of worlds,—the wondrous shoals
Of starry wanderers in empyreal seas;
The stedfast [sic] sun, to farthest globe that rolls,
Sending his messengers with life and peace;
The perfect Law, that all conditions suits;
The growing food—the trees—the flowers and the fruits;
All—far and near—His loving wisdom, tell;
“Lovest thou Me?” asks He who doeth well.
All information and quotations in this article come from Thornton Chase: First American Baha’i by Robert H. Stockman (Baha’i Publishing Trust, 2002).
- Early U.S. Baha’i men including Thornton Chase incorrectly believed the teachings forbade women’s election to administrative bodies. For more information, please refer to the section “From East to West” in Susan Stiles Maneck’s article “Women in the Baha’i Faith” [↩]