239 Days in America

A Social Media Documentary following 'Abdu'l-Bahá in 1912

Day
22
 | 
may 2, 1912
chicago, il
Storify Feature

The Trials of Corinne Knight True

TODAY CORINNE TRUE buried her last surviving son. Just yesterday she had helped ‘Abdu’l-Bahá lay the cornerstone for a new temple in Wilmette. If ever a life reflected the human quandary about the nature and meaning of suffering, that life belonged to Corinne True.


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Corinne Knight True was born near Louisville, Kentucky, on November 1, 1861, seven months after the Civil War began. Her father, Moses Knight, was a Presbyterian minister. Her mother, Martha Duerson, was a Southern aristocrat who had inherited a plantation and some thirty slaves. When they married, Moses persuaded her to free the slaves. Nevertheless, he would side with his neighbors during the war – Moses was a proud Southerner.

After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Moses moved his family to the city – he had invested in real estate there, a fortuitous move that soon made the family wealthy.

Corinne was the eldest child. Growing up, she was everything her father expected. As she entered her teenage years, he sent her to one of the finest finishing schools in the land. Then Corinne fell in love with the next door neighbor, a man who shared her father’s name. While he respected young Moses True, he forbade his daughter to take the relationship any further. The problem? Moses True was a Yankee.

Corinne simply could not understand her father’s opposition. Would he deny her happiness simply because the man she loved came from the wrong part of the country? He sent her away to tame the love affair. It was then that Corinne did something rash – she got married in the municipal building of a small Indiana town with a stranger as a witness.

While Corinne’s relationship with her father deteriorated, her marriage and family life flourished. Within ten years she and Moses had eight children. The family was tightly knit and successful. They built a life in Chicago and were active members in a Protestant church.

Then nine-year-old Harriet fell down the basement steps.

Corinne’s marriage held together in the wake of her daughter’s death, but her religious beliefs failed her. Shortly after the death of Harriet, she and her husband left their Protestant congregation and began seeking out new brands of Christianity. First they turned to Unity, a progressive Christian movement. Then it was Christian Science. Then Divine Science.

In 1899 diphtheria swept through Chicago. Several of the True children contracted it, including the baby, Nathanael. Doctors scrambled throughout the city trying to contain the disease, but there was no reliable cure.

On the first of May, Nathanael took his final breath.

Moses was comforted by Divine Science. But Corinne could not find the answers she was looking for. She pored over books on Creation and theology, and attended lectures by leaders of new philosophies and religious teachings. Mrs. True first learned about Bahá’u’lláh in late 1899. More than 700 Bahá’ís lived in Chicago. She accepted the faith almost immediately.

Then seven-year-old Kenneth passed away.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá sent Corinne letters consoling her on the death of her boys. They were safe, he said, in the kingdom of God. She threw herself back into her religious work. But there was a problem. The city’s Bahá’ís had two parallel organizing bodies, one for men and the other for women. While Corinne served on and off as president and secretary of the Women’s Assembly of Teaching, she was dismayed. She wrote repeatedly to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, questioning her religion’s commitment to the principle of the equality of the sexes.

In 1906, twenty-one-year-old Lawrence died in a sailing accident.


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Corinne arrived in Palestine to see ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on February 25, 1907. Four years earlier, the Bahá’ís had asked his permission to build a house of worship in Chicago. He agreed, but the project sat idle. Now, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá told Mrs. True exactly what to do. A few days later, when a delegation of three men from Chicago arrived to consult about the plan officially, they were more than a little bit surprised to find ‘Abdu’l-Bahá simply unwilling to discuss it. “When you return,” he told them, “consult with Mrs. True – I have given her complete instructions.” Somehow, the Master had entrusted the community’s defining enterprise to a woman.

At Mrs. True’s instigation, a new national body was created to coordinate the work of the temple. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá made it clear that it must include women. It held its first convention in Chicago in March 1909. Delegates elected nine individuals to serve on the Executive Board of the Bahá’í Temple Unity. One of them was Corinne True.

Once again, she threw herself into the work even as her calamities mounted. Moses True died of a heart attack. Davis, her last surviving son, caught tuberculosis in 1910 and battled for nearly three years before passing away the night before ‘Abdu’l-Bahá laid the temple’s cornerstone in Wilmette.

Today, on the morning of May 2, 1912, Corinne buried her son. In the late afternoon ‘Abdu’l-Bahá asked her to join him at the Plaza Hotel. There, the two of them sat gazing through the window that overlooked Lincoln Park. It was an improbable scene: an elderly Middle Eastern man and an upper class white woman. But ‘Abdu’l-Bahá probably understood Corinne’s grief more than anyone else on this sad May morning, for not only did he also have children, but he, too, had lost all five of his young sons.

Over the course of thirteen years ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had shaped Corinne True’s grief into purpose. He called her the “Mother of the Temple.”

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ADD A NEW COMMENT

  • Tony Bristow-Stagg

    A Wonderful story of Faith and sacrifice. Well written

    Regards Tony

  • Esther Bradley-DeTally

    I love all the early believers; i’ve read all the biographies-they galvanize us in this generation.

  • Sbentler

    Lovely story, heart rending sacrifice! How great must her faith have been!

  • Dean Hedges

    Not many know that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was also blessed to have a marriage. This marriage produced nine children. See Wikipedia if interested.

    • http://jmenon.com/ Jonathan Menon

      Thanks Dean :-)

      We haven’t addressed ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s family life yet, but we will soon. 

      Thanks for the reminder :-)

    • http://jmenon.com/ Jonathan Menon

      Dean, it just dawned on us what you meant by your comment. The fact that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá also lost five children, including all of his sons, was a huge thing for us to have left out.

      We are going to add it to the feature.

      Thanks so much again.

  • Candace Hill

    One of the few remaining places in Chicago where you can walk in the footsteps of Abdu’l-Baha is at the Oak Woods Cemetery, where on May 5 he visited the grave of Davis True and prayed for him, and for all the other souls remembered there, including Civil War dead.  This map on Google shows the cemetery and the location and the number of the gravesite. http://g.co/maps/ddgyk

  • Bahaiwoman99

    I can’t imagine the grief of losing all of your children and your husband.  This story makes me want to go again to the House of Worship in Wilmette.  What a wonderful positive focus to be building something so glorious when there was so much grief.   What a wonderful and wise  plan for Abdu’l-Baha to have both men and women working together on this project with a strong woman as the pivot point.

    • lisafloyd

      I mention this not to minimize Corine’s grief, but rather to be corrected if I’m
      misconstruing something in my reading of this account. 
      It appears to me that
      Corine True had 8 children — maybe 5 boys and 3 girls if all the boys are accounted for in this account.  — and that it was her “last surviving son” that she buried on 05/02/1912, the day after
      ‘Abdu’l-Bahá laid the cornerstone for the temple. 
      Judging by the last picture in
      the article, Corine still had 2 daughters who lived until the dedication
      of the temple on 05/01/1953.  yes? 

      • http://jmenon.com/ Jonathan Menon

        Hi Lisa. Thanks for commenting!

        Corinne True had eight children: Harriet, Lawrence, (Charles Gilbert) Davis, Edna, Arna, Katharine and Kenneth, who were twins, and Nathanael.

        Katharine died in 1963, Arna in 1975, and Edna in 1988.

  • Kate Weisman

    So deeply moved and inspired. Thank you Robert Sockett for making Corrine’s life, sufferings and most important contribution alive to galvanize us all.

  • Manshadi

    I am crying . I am overwhelmed with Mrs. True sufferings. and the majesty of Abdu`l`Baha. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Pascal-Molineaux/760849296 Pascal Molineaux

    Corinne True was no doubt an outstanding example of courage, strength, incredible will power and steadfastness, qualities that allowed her to withstand life’s most challenging tests and set an example unto all.  May we all follow in her footsteps! 

  • http://www.facebook.com/FreshLetters Jonathan Marshall

    Someone perfectly appointed… you caught the essence of it.

  • Beijinger

    Great writing. Thanks.

  • Idclaire1

    Dear Corinne,how my heart breaks for your suffering I cant imagine losing so many children 

  • Jvmcgovern

    What sacrifices…such a pure soul…dear dear Corinne….you are our example of how to turn
    life’s pain into purpose! May we all learn from you.

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