Thornton Chase, the first American Bahá'i, the first Bahá'i from the Western Hemisphere.
© Copyright 1993, 1998 by N. Richard Francis
was born in Springfield,
Massachusetts on February 22, 1847. After living in Springfield during his
childhood and teen years; he joined up with the United Stated Military during the American Civil War, becoming
a Captain. After the war, he attended Brown University. He later moved to Chicago and became an insurance
salesman. Thornton was fond of fishing and cultured a love of music, developing a clear
baritone voice, and even performed in local operas.
Thornton always had a strong interest in religion, but never fully accepted the prevailing doctrines or sects he explored. He became a follower of the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, the great Swedish mystic. He wasn't fully content with this and eventually fell away. However, he always maintained a belief that the `Day of God' was concurrent; he was determined to follow this quest and find a new `word of God.'
According to his life-long -friend Carl Scheffler, Thornton first heard of the Bahá'i Faith through William F. James. He was told of a man who was proclaiming that God: "walked upon the earth." A meeting was arranged with Dr. Ibrahim Khayru'lláh,* the one who had made this claim. Thornton chase later wrote about his introduction to the Faith as follows:
Thornton Chase 1847 - 1912
"In the month of June, 1894, a gentleman in Chicago desired to study Sanskrit, in order to further pursue his search into ancient religious teachings. While seeking an instructor he met a Syrian (Ibrahim Khayru'lláh) who had come to Chicago from Egypt a short time before, and who told him of the Bahá'i Movement.... As the statements of the life and teachings of Bahá`o'lláh and his son Abbás Effendi, the `Greatest Branch', otherwise known as 'Abdul-Bahá, accorded with the declarations of numerous sacred prophecies, and with the agelong expectations of mankind, it was deemed of value to investigate those claims as far as possible. Other seekers for truth become attracted to the study of matters, with the result that five accepted the teachings as true during the year 1894." 1.
That same year, Thornton Chase became a Bahá'i and because his insurance work allowed him to travel extensively, he partook of the opportunity to spread the teachings of Baháulláh. His teaching took up more of his efforts and he soon became less interested in his profession; his income suffered. John Bosch wrote:
"In those days Thornton chase had an important insurance position in Chicago, with a salary of $750 a month which diminished every year because the Faith meant more to him than his business. Whenever he was coming to San Francisco he wired John; they would stop at different hotels, but dined together. He was very tall---about six feet two. He always ate two or three ice creams after supper; he always dug a big bite right out of the middle of it to start with. Around eleven o'clock, he used to say: "Now , John, I guess it's about time to take you home." Arm in arm, they would go to John's hotel, talking steadily about the Cause. They would sit in the parlor. About one o'clock I used to say: "Now, Mr. Chase, I guess it's about time to take you home." We used to wonder what the policeman on the beat thought about us. One night we brought each other home till four in the morning." 2.
Thornton Chase eagerly received new information that was being unfolded by the Master and recognized the importance of the Administrative Order. At this same time, many others were falling away from the Faith because of difficulty in accepting the teachings and leadership of 'Abdul-Bahá.
In April 1907, Thornton made a pilgrimage to 'Akká and later documented his experience in a short book he titled "In Galilee". He met with the Master several times. On his last visit with the Master, 'Abdul-Bahá stressed the great importance of unity among all the believers and explained that this is the only means that the Faith can progress; he added that the building of the "Temple in America" should help achieve this condition of unity.
After Thornton returned from his pilgrimage, the company that employed him transferred him to California in the hope that he would devote more time working for them and spend less time on the Faith. The people he worked with often felt `elated' 3.. in his presence; and in fact, he was devoting even more of his time to the Cause.
Thornton Chase wrote another book that was finally published in 1919, seven years after his passing, titled: The Bahá'i Revelation. This book contained, among other things, a short history of the Faith. In one chapter he wrote, "Age after age, through all history, One has appeared, who gave to man the Word of God, divine instruction how to live and what to do to attain a higher and heavenly station, to overcome former conditions and rise to a manner of life which should be permanent, sinless, perfect and valuable." 4..
On August 9, 1912, Thornton wrote a poem about 'Abdul-Bahá that was published in the Star of the West. 5. John Bosch sent a telegram to 'Abdul-Bahá in Dublin, New Hampshire, begging Him to come to California. Thornton's name was included as one of the signatories.
After an illness lasting several weeks, Thornton Chase passed on to the Abhá Kingdom on September 30, 1912, at his home in Los Angeles, California. He left all of his papers and books to John Bosch. Unfortunately, Mrs. Chase burned some fifteen hundred letters before John was able to get to Los Angeles to retrieve them.
The Master first heard of Thornton's passing when he arrived in San Francisco on October 4, 1912. He then made a special trip to the `City of the Angels' and on Saturday October 18th, at one o'clock in the afternoon, arrived at Inglewood Cemetery. There, before some twenty five believers, prostrated himself on the ground then stood at the head of the grave, faced east, raised his hands to heaven and chanted a prayer, concluding with the words: "Submerge him in the ocean of Thy lights." 6. Also see the 90th Commemoration of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's Travels through Nevada.
That same night, 'Abdul-Bahá gave a talk about Thornton Chase, instructing the Friends to: "As many times as possible--at least once a year-- you should make it a point to visit his tomb, for his spirit will be exhilarated through the loyalty of the friends, and in the world of God will it be happy. The friends of God must be kind to one another, whether it be in life or after death." 7. **
The Bahá'i community of Inglewood, California hosts an annual commemoration in honor of Thornton Chase, held at the grave site during the last weekend in September. On the simple grave stone, that lies flat on the ground is inscribed the words of the Master: "This is the illumined resting place of the holy soul, Thornton Chase, who is shining in the horizon of eternal life ever like a star."
1. World Order, vol. XI, no. 5, article by Carl Scheffler, `Thornton Chase: First American Bahá'i,' p. 152.
* Dr. Ibrahim Khayru'lláh became a Covenant Breaker in 1900 after turning away from the instructions of 'Abdul-Bahá.. Thornton Chase faithfully held allegiance to the Greatest Branch and Baháulláhs Covenant while the other four followed Dr. Khayru'lláh. Also see session no. 7, Arthur Pillsbury Dodge.
2. Some Early Bahá'ís of the West by O.Z. Whitehead, p. 5. excerpts from a letter by John Bosch.
3. Some Early Bahá'ís of the West by O.Z. Whitehead, p. 8 originally from ~Abdul-Baha, p. 57.
4. The Bahá'i Revelation, by Thornton Chase, p.61.
5. Star of the West, vol. 4, no. 11, p. 188.
7. > Some Early Bahá'is of the West, by O.Z. Whitehead, p. 11
8. Star of the West, vol. 4, no. 13, p. 225.
** Popular belief is that 'Abdul-Bahá appointed Thornton Chase posthumously as a `Hand of the Cause of God." However, research on the institution of the `Hands of the Cause of God', based on documentation published in The Bahá'i World, vol. XII, sec. VIII revealed no indication that he was granted the station. Also note that 'Abdul-Bahá never appointed a living `Hand of the Cause of God.'