The Baha’i Faith was first publicly mentioned in the United States in 1893 by a Presbyterian missionary at the World’s Parliament of Religions held during the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The following year, Thornton Chase, a Chicago insurance manager, became the first American Baha’i. An article by Dr. Robert Stockman about Mr. Chase, which includes a full story of his life and early years can be read at The Baha’i Encyclopedia Project. Following are excerpts from that article:
Thornton Chase was born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1847. His mother died just days after he was born and he later described his childhood as “loveless and lonely,” with “neither mother, sister nor brother.” The inner vacuum he felt apparently set him on a quest for love that culminated in his mystical interests.
In 1888 Chase was hired by the Union Mutual Life Insurance Company as an agent and soon became the manager of its entire Colorado operation. In 1889 the company promoted him and moved him to its Santa Cruz and San Francisco offices. In California, Chase continued his religious search, combining it with his work. In 1893 he published a booklet called Sketches that uses biblical and religious stories to explain why people should purchase life insurance for themselves. The booklet reveals Chase as a religious seeker familiar with all the major religions.
Chase was transferred by the company to Chicago in about 1893 and in early 1894 he was writing a poem about God when a business colleague entered his office. The colleague was intrigued by the poem and told Chase about a man who claimed that God had recently “walked upon the earth.” Chase investigated and discovered that the man was Ibrahim Kheiralla, a Baha’i from Beirut who had recently come to the United States, and that he taught the coming of Baha’u’llah, a Messenger of God, in fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Chase and a small group of Chicagoans began to study the Baha’i Faith with Kheiralla.
By 1895 Chase had completed the class and had become a Baha’i. At least three other Americans completed the class and accepted the new religion before Chase, but subsequently these three lost interest in the Baha’i Faith. Thus, ‘Abdu’l-Baha (the son of Baha’u’llah) recognized Chase as “the first American believer,” and Shoghi Effendi (the grandson of ‘Abdu’l-Baha) later described him as “indeed the first to embrace the Cause of Baha’u’llah in the Western world.”
Classes on the Baha’i Faith were organized in Chicago and later in Enterprise, Kansas; Kenosha, Wisconsin; Ithaca, New York; New York City; Philadelphia; and Oakland, California. By 1899 about fifteen hundred Americans had become Baha’is, including seven hundred in Chicago. Chase gave a class on the Baha’i Faith, wrote numerous letters to interested seekers, and taught the Faith widely during his frequent travels for his company.
In 1899 American Baha’is returning from a pilgrimage to the Baha’i holy places in Ottoman Palestine brought to North America rudimentary knowledge of the Baha’i administrative system. Chase became actively involved in administering the Chicago Baha’i community, first in November 1899, when the community elected officers, and then in March 1900, when the community elected a ten-member Board of Council. Chase was one of the 1899 officers and a member of the 1900 board. Starting in 1898, Ibrahim Kheiralla began to insist on a formal role as leader of the American Baha’is. Chase was one of those who tried unsuccessfully to help Kheiralla realize the inappropriateness of his demand, and subsequently Chase played a central part in reorganizing the Baha’i community independently of Kheiralla.
In 1900 and 1901 ‘Abdu’l-Baha sent four knowledgeable Persians—’Abdu’l Karim Tihrani, Haji Mirza Hasan Khurasani, Mirza Asadu’llah Isfahani, and Mirza Abu’l-Fadl Gulpaygani—to the United States to deepen the Baha’is knowledge of their religion. Chase arranged for the latter two visitors to stay in the Chicago Baha’i Center and moved into the center with them when his wife had to go to New England for a year to handle legal matters connected with the death of his stepmother in Springfield.
Having acquired a deep understanding of the Baha’i teachings during his time with the Persians, Chase soon emerged as the principal organizer of the Chicago Baha’i community. In May 1901 he coordinated an election that replaced the Board of Council with a new consultative body, which was first called the Chicago House of Justice and then the Chicago House of Spirituality. By 1902 Chase was serving as chairman of the House of Spirituality, an office he retained until he moved to California in 1909. Chase had learned about the Baha’i principle of consultation from the Persian teachers and emphasized its importance, thus becoming the first American Baha’i to champion it. Chase also wrote many circular letters that the House of Spirituality sent to Baha’i communities throughout the United States and Canada, explaining the Baha’i holy days and the period of fasting, thereby establishing their observance in North America.
Chase’s writing experience proved useful in the effort to edit and publish Baha’i literature. In 1900 Chase and three other Chicago Baha’i businessmen founded the Behais Supply and Publishing Board of Chicago. In the fall of 1902, the publisher was legally incorporated as the Bahai Publishing Society. It soon emerged as the principal publisher of Baha’i literature in the English-speaking world and became a major force behind the standardization of the spelling of Persian and Arabic Baha’i names and terms. Chase was the principal editor of the society’s literature and one of its principal financiers. The society published several Baha’i pamphlets that Chase wrote.
In 1907 Chase was able to go on pilgrimage to Ottoman Palestine. Though he could be with ‘Abdu’l-Baha in Acre for only three days, the experience transformed Chase. ‘Abdu’l-Baha, highly impressed by Chase’s qualities, conferred on him the title Thabit (Steadfast).
On returning home Chase wrote an account of his pilgrimage that was published in 1908 as In Galilee. The short work gives a detailed and poignant description of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s home and family in Acre, as well as a moving description of ‘Abdu’l-Baha Himself. The work remains an important example of the genre commonly known as pilgrim’s notes; thoughtful and reflective, it is of higher quality than most.
Next, Chase turned his thoughts to an introductory book on the Baha’i Faith, The Bahai Revelation, published in 1909. One of the most comprehensive and accurate introductions to the Baha’i Faith written by an early Western Baha’i, the work emphasizes the Baha’i teachings as a vehicle for personal spiritual transformation. It continued to be reprinted until the 1920s.
In late 1909 the Union Mutual Life Insurance Company, concerned about the amount of time Chase was spending on his religious activities, transferred Chase to Los Angeles, hoping that a location remote from Baha’i activity would decrease his opportunities to serve his religion. Chase considered resigning from the company, but at the age of sixty-two he found it impossible to obtain another job, and he had to support his wife, his son in college, and his elderly mother-in-law, none of whom had become Baha’i. Consequently, Chase had no choice but to accept the new position, even though it paid much less than he had been earning.
Chase still traveled extensively for his company as far north as Seattle and as far east as Denver, travels that gave him opportunities to visit the rapidly developing Baha’i communities of the Rocky Mountain and Pacific states. At home he helped to organize the Los Angeles Baha’is. In 1910 they elected Chase a member of their first five-member governing board and established their first monthly meetings. During this period Chase returned to writing poetry, primarily on the Baha’i Faith.
Thornton Chase became ill, suddenly and unexpectedly, while traveling in late September 1912. Following abdominal surgery, he lay gravely ill in a Los Angeles hospital. On September 27 the Baha’is wired the news to ‘Abdu’l-Baha, who was visiting the United States at the time and had stopped briefly to rest in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, en route to San Francisco. ‘Abdu’l-Baha and His party were saddened by the news. Chase died on the evening of September 30, just a day before ‘Abdu’l-Baha arrived in California, and was buried on October 4 in Inglewood Park Cemetery. Baha’is throughout the United States sent messages eulogizing Chase for his intelligence, his consultative approach to problems, his constant advocacy of the need for organization, and his loving disposition.
‘Abdu’l-Baha made a special trip to Los Angeles to visit Chase’s grave. On October 19, accompanied by about twenty-five Baha’is, He took a tram to the cemetery, walked solemnly and directly to the gravesite, and carefully covered it with flowers. He then chanted Baha’u’llah’s Tablet of Visitation, which is recited in the Shrines of Baha’u’llah and the Bab (the Forerunner of Baha’u'llah), and a prayer for the departed.
‘Abdu’l-Baha reportedly praised Chase’s qualities: “During his lifetime he bore many trials and vicissitudes, but he was very patient and long-suffering. He had a heart most illuminated, a spirit most rejoiced; his hope was to serve the world of humanity. . . .” ‘Abdu’l-Baha stated that Chase “will not be forgotten” and that his worth was not known then but would become “inestimably dear.” ‘Abdu’l-Baha instructed the Baha’is to visit Chase’s grave, to bring flowers on ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s behalf, and to “have the utmost consideration for the members of his family.” At the end of His visit, ‘Abdu’l-Baha knelt and kissed the grave.
Shoghi Effendi, in God Passes By, his history of the first Baha’i century, mentions the “poignant sight” of ‘Abdu’l-Baha kissing the tombstone of “His beloved disciple” as one of the scenes from ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s visit to the West [from April - December 1912] that will never “be effaced from memory.” Shoghi Effendi also included Chase among outstanding early Baha’is of the West whom he designated as “Disciples of ‘Abdu’l-Baha.”
Adhering to ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s instructions, the American Baha’i community holds an annual commemoration at Chase’s grave on the Sunday nearest to the date of his death.
- Read a poem by Thornton Chase about Baha’u’llah