Thornton James Brown Chase

Thornton James Brown Chase

Springfield, Hampden County, Massachusetts, USA
Death 30 Sep 1912 (aged 65)
Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, California, USA
Burial Inglewood, Los Angeles County, California, USA
Plot Lot 209, Sierra Plot
Memorial ID 19674187 · View Source
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The first American Baha'i.

In Springfield, Massachusetts, James Brown Thornton Chase was born, to, Jotham and Sarah (Thornton) Chase. Thornton’s mother died, within a few weeks after the delivery from childbirth complications.
His father, Jotham Chase, remarried three years after his birth. For the next thirteen years he was schooled and nurtured by various families who took him in. In a letter written in 1909, Thornron states: “My mother died when I was 17 days old and my childhood was loveless and lonely, as there was neither mother, sister nor brother...".
July 1863, Chase was accepted by Brown University, but, instead of attending, he enlisted in the Union Army to fight in the Civil War. In early 1864, just before his seventeenth birthday, Chase went to Philadelphia for one month’s training in a school for officers of black infantry units. By May, Chase was second in command of one hundred men, Company K of the Twenty-sixth United States Colored Troops. Two months later, the unit fought two battles in South Carolina; Chase was slightly wounded by an exploding cannon, which permanently impaired the hearing in his left ear. By the end of the war in April 1865, he had been promoted to captain and headed his own company.
Now going by the given name of Thornton, safely home from war, he attended Brown University but dropped out before completing his second semester. He returned to Springfield, where he worked for his father’s timber business. On 11 May 1870 he married Annie Elizabeth Allyn of Bristol, Rhode Island. The couple had two children: Sarah Thornton (1871) and Jessamine Allyn (1874). Chase started his own timber business in Springfield; by 1872 the business had failed. Unable to obtain work and desperate to support his young family, he sent his wife (who was pregnant with their second child) and young daughter to live with her mother while he went to Boston. He obtained a meager living through singing and acting. Over the next five years his search for adequate wages led him across several states but Chase could barely keep a roof over his head, let alone send money home. In February 1878, he received notice that Annie had filed for divorce, claiming that Chase had deserted her. He wrote the court in earnest, telling his side of the story, but the judge sided with Annie and dissolved the marriage. Thornton was reported to have been devastated by the divorce. The only account of Chase during these years describes him as “undoubtedly crazy.”
It was around this time while in the midst of loneliness, poverty, and a sense of failure, Chase had an experience of God’s love, of love "unspeakable," of "absolute oneness." The experience pulled him back from the brink of self-destruction, renewed his hope, and gave further energy to his religious search.
On 6 May 1880 he married Eleanor Francesca Hockett Pervier at the Plymouth Congregational Church in Des Moines, Iowa.
With a happy marriage and financial stability, Thornton's musical and literary talents thrived. Not long after settling in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Thornton was instrumental in organizing the Arion Club, Pueblo's first musical and dramatic society
By late 1882 Thornton's life had achieved a significant sense of direction and success. While living in Pueblo, Thornton underwent some development in his religious thinking. Thornton felt some sort of indication that God had some as yet unknown work for him….stating in a letter … “I have felt that it was in God's Mercy that I was being fitted to be of some service here for Him." He joined the local Swedenborgian church which emphasized a metaphorical interpretation of the Bible and stressed a mystical approach to Jesus and Christianity, differing from the strict Protestantism of the Baptist Church of Chase’s childhood. After several years, the church became wracked by doctrinal disputes. It was around this time that Chase abandoned it and all other Christian churches while he began a broader religious search.
In 1888 he 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. Chase’s only son, William Jotham Thornton Chase, was born in Santa Cruz in 1889.
In California, Thornton 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.
In late 1909 the Union Mutual Life Insurance Company, transferred him to Los Angeles, hoping that a location remote from Bahá’í activity would decrease his opportunities to serve his religion. The position, paid much less than he had been earning. Chase considered resigning from the company, but at sixty-two he was concerned about finding another job that would himself, his wife, his son in college, and his elderly mother-in-law (Mary (Worth) Hockett), none of whom had become Bahá’í. Chase friends said that Eleanore was ‘the best Bahá'í in the city but she can't accept Bahá'u'lláh as an equal to Jesus.’
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. Thornton died on the evening of 30 September 1012, and was buried on 4 October in Inglewood Park Cemetery. Eleanor F. Chase purchased the burial location of, Lot 209, Sierra Plot. Mrs. Chase, who died in 1933, is not buried with her husband.
Bahá’ís throughout the United States sent messages eulogizing him for his intelligence, his consultative approach to problems, his constant advocacy of the need for organization, and his loving disposition.

1. Chase, Thornton: The First Bahá'í from the Western Hemisphere, by Richard Francis (1998). Biography of the life of Thornton Chase, a prominent early American Baha'i. Biographies.
2. Chase, Thornton, by Robert Stockman, in The Bahá'í Encyclopedia (2009). On the first person in the West to become a steadfast Bahá’í, one of the founders of the Chicago Bahá’í community, included by Shoghi Effendi among a number of prominent early Bahá’ís he designated "Disciples of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá." Encyclopedia articles.
3. Chase, Thornton, by Moojan Momen, in Encyclopaedia Iranica, Volume 5 (1992). Very brief article, short enough to qualify as "fair use." Encyclopedia articles.
4. Love's Odyssey: The Life of Thornton Chase, by Robert Stockman (1999). Books.
5. Notes on the Thornton Chase Papers, by Robert Stockman (1985). Unformatted notes, ordered chronologically, on early American Baha'i Thornton Chase.

Family Members


  • Maintained by: S. G. Shanafelt
  • Originally Created by: Glenn and Tracy Morrow
  • Added: 2 Jun 2007
  • Find a Grave Memorial 19674187
  • James Gagnon
  • Find a Grave, database and images ( : accessed ), memorial page for Thornton James Brown Chase (22 Feb 1847–30 Sep 1912), Find a Grave Memorial no. 19674187, citing Inglewood Park Cemetery, Inglewood, Los Angeles County, California, USA ; Maintained by S. G. Shanafelt (contributor 46871301) .