The Last Days of Thornton Chase 1
‘ABDU’L-BAHÁ’S TRAIN WEST arrived in Glenwood Springs at two o’clock in the morning on Saturday, September 28, 1912. That afternoon the party took a walk in the gardens of the Hotel Colorado, and crossed the bridge to visit the shopping district. As the Colorado River swept beneath them, a messenger approached with some telegrams that had arrived for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. One of them, from Los Angeles, reported that his friend, Thornton Chase, had been rushed two days earlier to the Angelus Hospital and was awaiting emergency surgery.
Thornton Chase had first heard about Bahá’u’lláh from the speech Dr. Henry Jessup had given at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893. By mid-1894 he was studying the new faith in Chicago. Three other Americans became Bahá’ís before Chase, but, of the four, only Chase had stuck. He was, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá later said, “the first Bahá’í in America.”
When Phoebe Hearst planned her pilgrimage to ‘Akká in 1898, Chase’s work with the Union Mutual Life Insurance Company prevented him from accompanying them. “I am heart broken,” he wrote to one of the party, “to learn that you are going and it is impossible for me to join you.” Instead, he sent along a letter to be hand-delivered to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, beginning a correspondence between the two men that would unfold over the next fourteen years. Of all the Americans ‘Abdu’l-Bahá knew, none were closer to him than Thornton Chase.
Early Thursday morning [October 17] He returned to San Francisco. People came to talk to Him throughout the day.
Matter is a vehicle for spirit but the transformation of matter does not involve the extinction of that power because transformation and transference are in the properties of matter 3
The Master left for San Francisco early in the morning. He had lost His seal, so all of His Tablets and writings made during this time were signed by Him with His own pen.
Mail from the Eastern friends was brought to Him. I read a letter from Hájí Mírzá Haydar-‘Alí and, on his behalf, prostrated myself at the feet of the Master. He raised me up with His hands and said, ‘I embrace you on behalf of Hájí.’ He did this with a smile and such kindness that it will never be forgotten.
In today’s gathering ‘Abdu’l-Bahá gave an account of the martyrs of Jahrum, testifying to the firmness and steadfastness of the friends in the East. The services and sincerity of Mírzá Abu’l-Fadl were highly praised by the Master. He also gave accounts of the last days of His imprisonment in ‘Akká, the oppression of Sultán ‘Abdu’l-Hamíd and the conduct of the Commission of Investigation.
This commission of investigation and oppression was on its way back to Istanbul from ‘Akká when the majesty of the justice of God revolutionized all matters. Sultán ‘Abdu’l-Hamíd was deposed and one member of the commission was murdered, another died and two of them absconded. One of these two begged for his daily expenses from the friends in Egypt.
Some philosophers, religionists and civic leaders of the town came one by one to see the Master. They were attracted by His words on spiritual matters and left with the utmost sincerity. One questioned Him about spirit and matter. The Master replied:
This question may be answered in two ways, philosophically as well as spiritually. Philosophically, the answer is easy because in philosophy the spirit is energy and all matter is endowed with energy; and this power is inseparable from matter, as in electricity. In other words, matter is a vehicle for spirit but the transformation of matter does not involve the extinction of that power because transformation and transference are in the properties of matter.
Immaterial beings or realities, however, are protected and preserved and their essential power remains unaltered. The manifestation or appearance of the spirit varies due to changes in matter and bodies. This, however, does not mean that spirit itself is subject to extinction.
The listeners were pleased to hear ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explain this subject in detail and testified to His divine knowledge and to the cogency of His explanation and argument.
Today the Master spoke twice at public gatherings at His residence. In the first of His addresses He exhorted the audience to keep the soil of their hearts pure and holy so that the flowers of the virtues of humanity might grow and that the blessings of God might descend upon them. In His other address (given after He had taken a short walk), He explained that heat and motion are essential for the contingent world.
12 October 1912, Talk at Temple Emmanu-El, 450 Sutter Street, San Francisco, California 4
The second classification or division comprises social laws and regulations applicable to human conduct. This is not the essential spiritual quality of religion. It is subject to change and transformation according to the exigencies and requirements of time and place. For instance, in the time of Noah certain requirements made it necessary that all seafood be allowable or lawful. During the time of the Abrahamic Prophethood it was considered allowable, because of a certain exigency, that a man should marry his aunt, even as Sarah was the sister of Abraham’s mother. During the cycle of Adam it was lawful and expedient for a man to marry his own sister, even as Abel, Cain and Seth, the sons of Adam, married their sisters. But in the law of the Pentateuch revealed by Moses these marriages were forbidden and their custom and sanction abrogated. Other laws formerly valid were annulled during the time of Moses. For example, it was lawful in Abraham’s cycle to eat the flesh of the camel, but during the time of Jacob this was prohibited. Such changes and transformations in the teaching of religion are applicable to the ordinary conditions of life, but they are not important or essential. Moses lived in the wilderness of Sinai where crime necessitated direct punishment. There were no penitentiaries or penalties of imprisonment. Therefore, according to the exigency of the time and place it was a law of God that an eye should be given for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. It would not be practicable to enforce this law at the present time—for instance, to blind a man who accidentally blinded you. In the Torah there are many commands concerning the punishment of a murderer. It would not be allowable or possible to carry out these ordinances today. Human conditions and exigencies are such that even the question of capital punishment—the one penalty which most nations have continued to enforce for murder—is now under discussion by wise men who are debating its advisability. In fact, laws for the ordinary conditions of life are only valid temporarily. The exigencies of the time of Moses justified cutting off a man’s hand for theft, but such a penalty is not allowable now. Time changes conditions, and laws change to suit conditions. We must remember that these changing laws are not the essentials; they are the accidentals of religion. The essential ordinances established by a Manifestation of God are spiritual; they concern moralities, the ethical development of man and faith in God. They are ideal and necessarily permanent—expressions of the one foundation and not amenable to change or transformation. Therefore, the fundamental basis of the revealed religion of God is immutable, unchanging throughout the centuries, not subject to the varying conditions of the human world.
- Sockett, Robert, and Jonathan Menon. “The Last Days of Thornton Chase.” 239 Days in America, 17 Oct. 2012, https://239days.com/2012/10/17/the-last-days-of-thornton-chase/. [return]
- Ward, Allan L. 239 Days: ʻAbdu’l-Bahá’s Journey in America. Wilmette, Ill: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1979, 169. [return]
- ’Abdu’l-Bahá, and Mirza Mahmud-i-Zarqani. Mahmúd’s Diary: The Diary of Mírzá Mahmúd-i-Zarqání Chronicling ’Abdu’l-Bahá’s Journey to America. Edited by Shirley Macias. Translated by Mohi Sobhani. Oxford: George Ronald, 1998. https://bahai-library.com/zarqani_mahmuds_diary&chapter=8#section208 [return]
- ʻAbduʼl-Bahá. The Promulgation of Universal Peace: Talks Delivered by ʻAbduʼl-Bahá during His Visit to the United States and Canada in 1912. Edited by Howard MacNutt. 2nd ed. Wilmette, Ill: Baháʼí Publishing Trust, 1982, 365-366. https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/abdul-baha/promulgation-universal-peace/27#059564833 [return]