Past and Present
Abusive Churches Are Not New
Estimated reading time: 34 minutes
It is tempting to think of extreme authoritarian sects as a symptom of modern intellectual and religious aliments. We live in a complex world where personal security is a rare commodity. Pick up any national paper or magazine and you will find articles on stress, marital problems, substance abuse, and the increase of gang-related violence. Contemporary preachers warn us that materialism and consumerism draw us away from God; we have become an ego-centered society that shuns the simple values and simple faith accepted by citizens one hundred years ago. It is no wonder then that immorality in the church itself is becoming more visible. It is no wonder that people, beset by anxieties and confused by scandal, should find shelter in the more structured environment of an authoritarian church.
In America, which has been a haven for numerous small religious sects, there are important historical precedents for abusive churches. Most sects offered variety rather than aberration, but a few could be categorized as extreme. As with their modern counterparts, they often began with noble aspirations and biblical foundations, but were led astray through human frailty. The whole of church history has indeed been one of conflict and reform. The body of Christ may be one, but Christ’s churches are many.
People have always struggled with the same needs-to be accepted by their friends and family, to find their way to God, and to make a contribution to their world. Humanity’s fear of loneliness and hope of salvation were no less real to people in the previous century than they are to us today. Unfortunately, there have also always been charismatic figures ready to take advantage of those most afraid and most hopeful.
One nineteenth-century religious community, in particular, has many similarities to modern manifestations. There are other examples of authoritarian abuse but, perhaps, none as intriguing. It is not representative of all turn-of-the-century Protestant sects, but it is a good example of an extremist community based on the near worship of a single man. Frank Sandford’s community at Shiloh offers insights into an abusive fringe church from its conception in the late nineteenth century to its “scattering” in 1920.
Shiloh must be understood in perspective. It did not spring from a vacuum. Many of the principles upon which Shiloh was based are rooted in the larger social and religious movements of its day. The nineteenth century was characterized by a restless spirituality that reflected a tumultuous period of history. During the nineteenth century, Americans’ perspectives of themselves and the world were altered forever. At the start of the century America was a new country, largely rural and agricultural with an entire continent to explore and subdue. By the close of the century America was a world power fueled by new cities and industry. Rapid urbanization brought a host of new social and economic problems that gradually replaced the nostalgic picture of the rugged pioneer carving out his identity with a plow and rifle, his stalwart family at his side. The church met this challenge of rapid growth, not as a unified body, but as an ever-growing number of denominations and sects. The problem faced then and now remains the same: which church shall I join? As Martin Marty has said, “Nowhere in the world and never in history had Christians been divided into so many conflicting groups as in America. Nowhere else were people on pilgrimage forced to make their religious choice from among appeals by more conflicting organizations.”
Two concepts dividing Protestantism that were easily used by extremist churches were the ideas of the kingdom of God and the second coming of Christ. The kingdom of God was a utopian dream that was very easy for the nineteenth century to accept. The hundred years before the first World War were dominated by the belief in humanity’s potential to achieve perfection. Popular preachers proclaimed the kingdom of God as an achievable goal for the people of God, a perfect society of committed Christians uniting the world under God’s banner. For most, the kingdom of God was a theological concept, not a blueprint for society. It was quickly accepted by the growing numbers of believers who looked at the Second Coming as an event that would occur in the imminent future. The kingdom of God was an idea that transcended traditional churches and transformed humanity into an organized body, subservient to the will of God. The aim was to model the simple faith and lifestyle of the early church, and this was accepted by believers who chose a rigorous communal lifestyle in anticipation of the Second Coming. For followers of Frank Sandford, the kingdom of God was the community of Shiloh on the banks of the Androscoggin River in southern Maine.
A visitor to Shiloh at the turn of the century would have found a large community of men and women dedicated to their work of preparing the world for Christ’s return. Almost all members of the Shiloh movement came from traditional Christian backgrounds. They gave up their independence and livelihoods to travel to Shiloh as disciples of Frank Sandford. If one were to look strictly at the surface, Shiloh’s achievements were impressive. Beyond Sandford’s charismatic ability to demand unswerving respect and obedience from his followers, he had managed to build a large complex of structures, all built and financed by the members of the community. The main building was called Shiloh, after which the movement was named. It was a three-storied, rambling structure resembling a castle complete with turrets, towers, and a large golden dome that shone like a beacon in the sun.
Shiloh was more than just a collection of buildings or followers. It was a testament to one man’s faith and authority. The people of Shiloh pledged allegiance to a man to whom God spoke directly, despite clear evidence that this man’s version of reality was vastly different from the rest of the world’s. Perhaps that was the thing that most drew people into Sandford’s world. His reality was different. His call to discipleship challenged one’s faith, and by great suffering they were saved. The sacrifices people made of their lives and the lives of their children were willingly made as necessary to please God. Suffering in the proper context has never been considered a hindrance to faith in the Christian church. Often it has been seen as a testament of faith. Shiloh’s error was not in denying the flesh, but doing so to satisfy the whims of a man more in love with power than with God.
Frank Sandford, convicted murderer and destined to be the leader of an international revival movement, came from humble beginnings. He was born on October 2, 1862 into a large family whose farm was located in the same region of Maine where he would later bring his congregation. In 1886, after graduating from Bates College, he entered Cobb Divinity School. He left seminary without completing a degree. Sandford sought a more immediate, less academic, and almost mystical knowledge of God, and God spoke to him directly and told him to leave seminary. From then on, Sandford believed that God spoke to him in a clear, quiet voice. This served two purposes. It gave Sandford necessary authority as the chosen spokesman for God, and it gave his important decisions holy sanction.
Sandford married Helen Kinney a few years later and served as a pastor in two New England Baptist churches before God told him to abandon his church and his denomination. While serving as a pastor, he became increasingly interested in the ministry of divine healing and the Second Coming. It became clear to Sandford that not all Christians would belong in the last faithful remnant of believers. At the end of the world, the human race would be divided into servants of the Lord and servants of the Antichrist. No current church or movement could satisfy the rigorous spiritual demands needed to qualify for the last remnant; a new army of God must be formed. Members were welcome from all denominational backgrounds. Non-members would be listed in the roll call of the Antichrist. This apocalyptic or prophetic elitism set the members of this new band, what would eventually become Shiloh, apart from the rest of the world. It gave its members cosmic significance and assurance of salvation. There was no other choice for anyone desiring to be counted in the last remnant.
After leaving the church, Frank and Helen took up the lives of itinerant preachers. Seeking the signs and wonders that were to accompany the return of Christ, Sandford asked to be filled with the Holy Spirit. After being filled, Sandford received another message from God. “He said I need have no responsibility whatever, but simply respond to His movings.” Again God had affirmed his spokesman, and at the same time allowed him to put on a peculiar, amoral overcoat. Sandford’s responsibility was a key issue at all the Shiloh criminal trials and helped to convict him of manslaughter, kidnapping, and child endangerment. Sandford never denied his deeds, but defended his actions because he was “only following divine orders.” For this man, devoid of remorse, guilt, or even compassion, hundreds of parents beat their children, watched them starve, and were even willing to die themselves. To the day he died, Sandford refused to accept any blame or to show any sorrow for one thing that happened to the souls placed in his care.
His renewed zeal and impassioned preaching drew a growing flock of followers. It was the beginning of a movement. As Sandford’s ministry was becoming more popular with the people, he became increasingly unpopular with the local churches. There is some justification for the local churches’ resentment toward his work. Sandford was luring away members of their own congregations, and he encouraged his followers to break ties with established churches.
The next logical step in Sandford’s plan was to create a location where his followers could be trained for missionary work. All contemporary Bible Schools were rejected because they neither studied the “whole Bible” nor possessed the “whole truth.” The truth was found only in the teachings of Frank Sandford. The Holy Ghost and Us Bible School was founded in October of 1895, and the opening of the school marks the beginning of a recognizable movement, later called Shiloh. The first class numbered less than a dozen. They were all former members of Christian churches, but at Sandford’s insistence they were re-baptized, renounced all established denominations, and received the authentic stamp of the Holy Spirit. Students were drawn into the church and remained because of Sandford’s personal charisma. David Wiley, who was a member of the group, said, “I was enormously impressed by the magnitude of the man. His presence was powerful, like an electric current in the room.”
The Bible School was the core of the Shiloh movement. Dedicated students were being trained to serve as witnesses to the truth. Their lives were devoted to that one purpose. No student or full-time member of Shiloh ever worked or earned a wage. All food, materials, money, land, and buildings were donated by supporters who had been cultivated by Frank. The only teacher was Sandford and the only accepted interpretation of Scripture was his. Shiloh’s initial students and members were referred to as “David’s Band,” a reference to King David’s renegade army while he was hiding from Saul. The Bible-school students were being trained to fight and to spread Sandford’s vision of the kingdom throughout the world. And they were prepared to suffer persecution and hardship. In the Holy Ghost and Us Bible School the important spiritual foundations of Shiloh were laid down: mystic revelations from God to Sandford, the conviction of being set apart by God for some millennial purpose, the absence of individual thought, and unquestioned obedience at all times and in all things. Having accepted these things, Sandford’s followers were willing to do anything.
Shiloh’s history as a movement begins in the late 1890s and ends in 1920, roughly twenty-five years. In those twenty-five years the movement had its ups and downs. When things went well for Shilohites, it seemed as if God had really chosen them for a special purpose. People donated money and food, buildings were raised and filled with expensive furniture and carpeting. People ate three good meals a day and their faces glowed with purpose. But this side of Shiloh, prosperous and healthy, was a brief and intermittent period at the beginning of the movement. When there were fewer mouths to feed, the financial burden could be borne by outside supporters. As more and more followers realized that salvation was assured only to full-time members on the hill, the place on the compound where the members lived, the crowding of entire families into the dormitory facilities with no means of support placed a tremendous burden on the community. Simply feeding that many bodies became a major struggle that was lost more than won. In the autumn of 1919, children were sent out to the woods to collect leaves and berries, anything that looked edible. They accepted starvation with a stoic attitude; they hungered because it was God’s will that they should hunger. They did nothing to save themselves because God had expressly commanded them not to do so; they were to “live on faith.”
Money was usually a problem. Shiloh did not borrow money or purchase even necessary food on credit. Many times the kettles in the kitchen were empty for days before a donation of cornmeal arrived. Members who traveled abroad usually started out with less than five dollars in their pockets. Everything was done in faith. Somehow they managed. Frank could always mysteriously come up with large amounts of cash, seemingly out of thin air.
The Shiloh movement expanded briefly at the turn of the century when several foreign missions were established in England, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. These branches were short-lived and unsuccessful, though missionaries struggled there for many years before being called back. Suffering a growing disenchantment with the daily struggles of Shiloh, Sandford turned his energies to Jerusalem, where Christ would soon return. Along with his most loyal and devoted followers, Sandford left Shiloh, which would experience poverty and persecution while he went on extravagant world cruises aboard his yachts, The Coronet and The Kingdom.
Serious setbacks in Shiloh began in response to the very real threat of extinction through starvation, and when police and welfare investigations uncovered certain abuses permitted and even encouraged by Sandford. All of Shiloh’s major struggles stemmed from financial pressure and the rigorous behavior required by Sandford.
Even during times of intense struggle and deprivation, the People of Shiloh were unswervingly loyal to their leader. An average of four hundred people lived at Shiloh, and every aspect of their personal and family life was subject to Sandford’s authority. Although families lived at Shiloh, actual family life was curtailed. Parental authority was diminished as Sandford and his ministers made all final decisions. Members ate together in the huge dining room; here were no cozy family dinners. Later on, one building, Olivet, became the children’s dormitory. Even the initiation and dissolution of marriage fell under Sandford’s authority. He arranged marriages and performed “separations.” At times he splintered families by sending one spouse overseas for years at a time.
Male-female relationships were strictly controlled to preserve propriety. “To avoid appearance of evil,” there was no touching of any kind between the sexes. No close friendships were allowed. No child admitted to having a best friend. The leaders encouraged people, even children, to reveal each other’s faults. In a world with few material possessions, the most minor flaws became the source of guilt and self-loathing. A young girl confessed to the sin of vanity because she looked in a mirror. Then she was told to fast for three days to atone for her sin. It became a community obsession to root out the most minute bit of evil in their lives with a ruthlessness usually reserved for members of restrictive monastic orders. “It mattered how you acted, how you talked, even how you thought and looked.”
One might expect Sandford to have led a life of exemplary behavior. In fact, Shiloh never expected Sandford to withstand the difficulties experienced by the ordinary member. The suffering and denial cheerfully accepted by his followers was seldom shared by their leader. Sandford, Helen, and their five children lived in comfort in separate quarters. They had their own kitchen and cook. Members of Shiloh who were eating only a bowl of cornmeal a day knew that the Sandfords never went hungry. When times were tough on the hill, Sandford found time to travel on his well-provisioned yachts to Jerusalem. A double standard existed, and it remained unquestioned to the end.
The source of Sandford’s unquestioned authority was God. Interpreting God’s will was not left to chance since God spoke directly to Sandford. That God often spoke in verses from Scripture helped validate the messages. Frank soon became the anointed messenger of God and declared his power to forgive sins in God’s name. “God is here, and the representative of God is here that has power and authority from God to remit your sins …. I declare that every one of your sins will be remitted today if you are baptized …. If you accept it, you accept ‘the counsel of God.’ If you reject it, you reject ‘the counsel of God.”’ Sandford made it very clear that his words were divinely inspired and members would no more question his word than they would question Scripture. His words and decisions became synonymous with God’s.
In 1904, the members of Shiloh created a large banner containing a testament of faith, a pledge of allegiance, which all the members signed. The initial tenets would be familiar to most evangelical Christians today, but the last items on the list were unquestionably unorthodox. Those who signed the pledge, every child and adult, agreed that Frank Sandford was a prophet (Elijah), Priest (Melchizedek), and prince (David).
Obedience to Sandford’s will was nonnegotiable and absolute. Members were undaunted by suffering as Sandford reminded them that “the strongest character is the one who can suffer the most.”
Any sign of willfulness or independence was destroyed. The preoccupation with creating an army for Armageddon required soldier-like responses. “It is obey the rules and tactics in the Great War Book [the Bible] or get out, and cease to be a stumbling block to those who are resolved to follow and obey.”
For anyone to be disobedient to their superior was to disobey God himself. Outsiders often wondered how people fell in with Sandford’s plans so easily. They failed to understand how complete Sandford’s hold was over members; he held their very souls in his hand. People obeyed Willingly. “Sandford honestly believed that if individual members of Shiloh were each properly adjusted to the mind of God, … there would be no barrier to accepting the chain of authority.”
One of the keys to enforcing his authority lay in his anger. Although his temper lived alongside a gentle humor, it was formidable when crossed. He was seen many times to slap his wife in public, to throw chairs off the pulpit, and to incite the fellowship into a violent, loud prayer session called “a charge.” He even made an example of his own son, John. When John was seven years old, he disobeyed his father. John learned the penalty for disobedience, as did the entire community through his example. Sandford declared that John should be isolated in a room, denied food and water, and then he would be whipped. There was a twist to the whipping- John had to earnestly desire to be beaten. For three days John was in a room, a glass of water torturously placed out of reach on the nightstand, learning to be happy about suffering. Each day he would climb the staircase to his father’s prayer room and ask for his whipping, but Frank did not find him happy enough until the third day.
Shiloh doctrine stated that ill health was a sign of disobedience and rebellion. Sandford decided that the children played an important role in the development of disease and he used them as a weapon. “If a child misbehaved, it was as if the parents had directly disobeyed God, and God might punish the parents by punishing or even killing the child.” Since children were the source of the problem, ridding them of their sins and wickedness became essential.
Illness was a sign that the soul was sick, and if children were ill it was due not to malnutrition but to their sinful state. Sick children were told “to get right with God” by fasting and praying on their knees for extended periods of time. In some way their sins were causing Shiloh to suffer. Since the children were wayward and disobedient, fasting and being whipped were the ways in which they were punished. The beatings continued day and night. One father beat his young son all evening until someone stopped him at 1:00 A.M. There were rumors of older boys being taken out to the woods and beaten with horsewhips. One mother heard Sandford say that whipping a child was “the schoolmaster to bring them to Christ.”
Again and again Sandford told his flock to trust in his leadership. To question his authority was to bring disharmony into the group. Members accepted Frank’s reality as their own. If he had said that Theodore Roosevelt was the Antichrist, they would have believed it. The object of Frank’s authority was to break down individual will and self-identity. At various times Sandford laid hands upon the heads of members who exhibited too much individuality and exorcised the demons of independent thinking and reasoning. The only thing that mattered was faith. Thinking accomplished nothing. The “death of self’ became a spiritual goal for full members of Shiloh. If Sandford asked them to suffer in the process, they admired him even more for pulling holiness out of them.
There was little privacy in Shiloh and Sandford did not hesitate in becoming involved in peoples’ personal relationships. He encouraged Eliza Leger to leave her husband who had recently left the movement. She was torn between obeying Sandford the anointed leader and her duties as a wife to her husband. In a letter to Eliza, Sandford wrote, “The act of your husband is so dastardly … so utterly unscriptural that there is not the slightest reason that he should have the slightest consideration.” Engaged and married people who began relationships without Sandford’s permission, when he was abroad or, later, imprisoned, were told to “separate” until he had given them their blessings. It was not uncommon to see separated couples walk on the same road without speaking.
As the movement grew, its spiritual elitism became more pronounced. Their physical isolation on the hill was just a part of their separateness from the rest of the world. A visitor to Shiloh would notice immediately that Shilohites were different. They spoke differently. Their clothes were old, simple, and well mended, and their lifestyle certainly was unusual. From the beginning of the Holy Ghost and Us Bible School, David’s Band was the spiritual elite. Only the fittest warriors were selected. Frank wrote later that he had to literally scare some people away. The rigors of his community discouraged all but the most worthy. He wanted no ordinary Christians. Shiloh was to be the focal point of the kingdom of God.
When the movement experienced opposition and criticism, their very elitism became a defense against the arrows of the Devil. In 1901 Sandford closed Shiloh’s communion and worship services to all but full members. If families. opposed their relatives giving all their possessions to Shiloh, the members “must be ready to slash every natural tie-turn their backs on their families, if families should oppose obedience to God.” Stanford wrote, “You are actually to hate, WITH A PERFECT HATRED, your father, mother, brother, sister, child, and even your own life, in so far as these are not in conformity with the word of God.”
Many families did dissolve, marriages broke up, and children abandoned Shiloh only to be disfellowshipped by their parents. There was no higher allegiance than to Sandford, for allegiance to him was allegiance to God. Frank warned his followers:
First you will be out of joint with the world, then out of joint with the professed Christian world, then out of joint with consecrated people, and then sanctified people, and then people that believe in Divine Healing, and then the Holy Ghost people you know, and THEN you will find a few other people who have gone on alone with God.
One of Sandford’s greatest weaknesses as a leader was his lack of compassion. He enjoyed the simple exercise of power and authority. The people at Shiloh rarely were given any meat. They lived mainly on cornmeal. When some members prayed for meat during one of Sandford’s trips to Palestine, Sandford arranged for a side of beef to be delivered. He made everyone eat nothing but beef until the entire 1,425 pounds were finished. That much meat, after a vegetarian diet, made everyone sick, but it ended prayers for meat. He seemed willfully ignorant of the pain his followers endured for his sake while living the good life himself.
Even though Shiloh averaged around four hundred people throughout most of its history, not all those who experienced it were happy. A few did rebel. Most were bitter when they left and went to the newspapers with their stories. Some even filed lawsuits against Sandford. Ex-members told stories of physical or psychological manipulation and abuse.
Former members remembered subtle means for disorienting the members. For example, there was no schedule for work or prayer. At any moment during the day or night a loud alarm bell would call members to prayers or to other work. Members worked hard at keeping up the grounds and constructing new buildings. They were hungry, often overworked, and spiritually intimidated. Eliza Leger said she was “metaphysically stoned.” She lay prostrate on the floor for many hours while fellow members circled her body shouting and screaming as they accused her of “spiritual lapses.” She was then banished to a room for two weeks of fasting.
Sandford interpreted any dissent as the work of Satan. John Douglas was one of Frank’s earliest converts and most of Shiloh stood on land donated by John and his family. When John left right after the first building had been raised, after a disagreement over ownership of a small boat, local reporters who were critical of Shiloh, and who had been watching Sandford and his group, picked up the story of Douglas’ defection and gave Sandford his first dose of public criticism. Frank answered the papers in his magazine, “[Satan] has used godless editors and reporters to write up the most sensational and glaringly false statements concerning this work. .. thus poisoning the minds of the people all over the country against God’s movement.”
Ex-members were called quitters, turncoats, and traitors.
At first they simply lost their place in the Lord’s roll call, but gradually the act of leaving became an act of disloyalty. Ex-members were not to be spoken to or about. Georgia Sheller was told to have no fellowship with her parents who had left angrily and bitterly. She wrote to her parents, “I am following Elijah, and since you have deserted him I cannot and do not have anything more to do with you.” This treatment extended to members of Frank’s own family. Two of his daughters, Marguerite and Deborah, left as teenagers. They were both shunned, and Helen was forbidden to answer their letters. It was expected that you would stay with the community, even if it meant leaving your family behind.
To break away from the group required more effort than to join. After Eliza Leger left she said that “the hypnotic spell began to break as soon as I dared decide that something was wrong with this man .. ” I know that it is a part of that dreadful, subtle snare that some have broken away from, but that holds so many still under its power.” Staying was painful, but leaving was even more so. Members were told that to leave was to invite certain punishment and divine retribution. After Albert Field left with his family, he had a family portrait taken in case they should all perish from God’s wrath. Leaving also involved some real risk. All possessions were left at Shiloh. People left only with the clothes on their backs. Every member deeded their businesses, family farms, and all other assets to Shiloh to qualify as full members. When they left, they left destitute.
Some were unable to face the real world again and returned to Shiloh. Years of dependence did not make it easy for people to make their own decisions and fend for themselves. Those who did return were shunned, isolated in remote houses until they had earned forgiveness. Merlyn Bartlett left twice. She could not endure the condemnation after her return. When she left the second time, she was followed by Shiloh ministers who rode with her in the train denouncing her to the other passengers as “a whore.”
The wrath of God fell not only upon those who dared to leave Shiloh. Parents of children who escaped were punished, and so were those who failed at parental discipline. Those questioning any aspect of the ministry were severely reprimanded and punished. Dissent became synonymous with demon possession. It was a convenient way to bring dissenters back into fellowship. It was easier to blame a demon than to admit you had disagreed. Only a person exorcised could be fully forgiven. More often than not, demonic possession was evident when a man simply thought for himself. Sandford said, “Think clearly as he may … he cannot get anything correct … there is only one way out, the person has to submit or is sent away in disgrace.”
Periods of dissent, grumbling, or restlessness were followed by purges. The threat of being excommunicated and thrown out of the kingdom resulted in a renewal of allegiances. These purges were known as “the sifting-out process” or “cleaning-out time.” Sandford was looking for only the “fair, clear, and terrible.” The first purge in 1890 was meant to purify the members. The purge was a ruthless examination of character and soul. If you passed the test you were allowed to attend a special service for which you were given a ticket. Members considered the tickets to be beyond price. On the ticket were printed the words “fair,” meaning no blemish, “clear,” meaning no guile, and “terrible,” referring to the face of Satan when he met a child of God. This purge, like the others that followed, was less a spiritual purification process than it was a re-indoctrination, a means to solidify Sandford’s authority. The purges lasted for weeks, representing long grueling hours of prayer and fasting followed by intense interrogation. Only the submissive and defenseless were accepted.
Sandford interpreted every criticism as a demonic attempt to destroy the kingdom of God. “The malevolence of our detractors only shows that the devil fears the work that we are doing and will take any means to balk us.” He did not seem to worry about legal prosecution because God would deliver him from his enemies and detractors. He believed himself to be the prophet Elijah, and as Elijah, he expected to be persecuted and scorned. But he would prevail. Sandford threatened reporters who mocked him, “before long [they] will meet the God of judgment.”
Sandford was arrested on January 23, 1904 on charges of manslaughter in the case of Leander Bartlett, and child abuse in the case of John Sandford. The case of John Sandford was over in a single day, February 3rd. Sandford was found guilty of abuse and neglect in requiring his son to fast with neither food nor water for three days. The manslaughter trial began the next morning.
Leander Bartlett had died of diphtheria that January 25th in Bethesda, the Shiloh infirmary. He had come to Shiloh with his mother and sister, and he was a lively and good-natured boy. He was fourteen years old when he died. Leander had fallen suddenly ill in the middle of January. He became so weak that he could not stand and was carried to Bethesda in the middle of the night. It came out at the trial that Leander had received no medical or spiritual help during the next week, the last week of his life. A week after Leander was admitted, Joseph Sutherland was admitted with small pox. Joseph had refused to obey Sandford’s order to cover his face while visiting small pox victims. Sandford heard a message from God, “Dead. He said he would hearken unto thee, and he hearkened not.” It was revealed on Sunday, January 25 that both Leander and Joseph had died that day. Helen wrote to the overseas missions, “God has been showing His jealousy for David Truth [Sandford] … the curse falling on those who deviate from it in the least degree.”
Leander’s death was also seen as a punishment as he had confessed before dying that when he became ill he had been planning to run away.
The offenders had been punished. No-one was allowed to grieve for Sutherland. Sandford had “separated” Mrs. Sutherland from her husband while he lay dying in Bethesda. He told her that even though he had married them, he wasn’t happy about their relationship. While her husband died, she sat in a public chapel listening to Sandford tell her that she was now married to Christ because Joseph had been struck down for spiritual pride and seeking popularity. Mrs. Sutherland never fully recovered from the blow. Leander was buried in the Shiloh cemetery. Where other graves bore loving epitaphs, Leander’s bore only a name and a date.
The definition of manslaughter in the trial hinged on the interpretation of death by negligent omission. The prosecution had to prove that Leander was denied care and treatment. The matter of faith healing was really not the central issue. Sandford was convicted because he withheld not only medical treatment, but faith healing as well. Leander, who had planned to run away, was denied a doctor and a minister. Diphtheria at the time was treatable and almost one hundred percent curable if an antitoxin was given at the onset of the disease. In the end, the jury had to decide if Sandford had withheld faith healing out of spite or ill will, in order to make an example of what would happen to disobedient members. Current and former members took the stand verifying that Leander received no substantial care for the week he was sick before he died. In fact, he had been denied food and water during a seventy-two hour fast. Some testimony was especially damning. “He [Sandford] stretched his hands out before him and said he wouldn’t care, or he would like to see … his dead corpse before him …. He said he couldn’t pray for him.”
During his court appearances Sandford took a passive role, neither conferring with his attorney nor taking the stand in his own defense. He seemed completely at ease and unperturbed by the possibility of a conviction. The people of Shiloh flocked to the courthouse to watch the proceedings quietly, trying to avoid the reporters who surrounded the building. In less than two hours the jury returned the verdict of guilty.
It took two years and many appeals before the verdict was overturned (the prosecution was not able to prove “culpable indifference”). During those years Sandford became convinced that the Tribulation had begun and if they were to be the refuge in the wilderness, Shiloh needed to be self-sufficient. Shiloh was incorporated as the Kingdom of David. More property was purchased, including dairies and farms. Only a self-sufficient community would be able to ride out the Tribulation. Sandford began asking families to join the movement. People across the nation, eager to be a part of the true church, sold their farms and transferred their assets to the Kingdom. They had been promised farms in Durham purchased by the Kingdom in their names. In fact, only seven of the twenty-two donors arrived to find land in their names.
Sandford’s second trial followed the disastrous voyage of 1911. Sandford had felt it difficult to deal with the problems at Shiloh and retreated to his yacht, The Coronet. He selected the best and most loyal members of Shiloh to serve as his crew. After a long, tedious voyage around the globe in an overcrowded boat, Sandford at last returned home to the Atlantic coast. He was wanted by the police on a kidnapping charge made by Florence Whittaker, who had been detained against her will on board one of the Kingdom yachts before being rescued by the local Sheriff. Although most of the passengers had not known, Sandford was on the run from the law. The Coronet shuttled up and down the coast, across the Atlantic to Africa, trying to stay in international waters. When supplies of food and water were almost gone, Sandford still refused to land, even in a foreign port. The boat, built to house a maximum of thirty people, was being occupied by more than fifty. Some crew members and passengers fell ill, and some died. For the last few months the passengers survived on biscuits and rainwater rations. The boat had to be pumped twenty-four hours a day. Men became so weak that they could not climb up on deck. The men, women, and children aboard lost their will to live. The constant storms broke the schooner’s masts, and it became impossible to keep warm and dry in the middle of the storm-tossed North Atlantic. The passengers and crew began to lose their teeth and suffer constant diarrhea. By the time scurvy was suspected, it was too late. Much later, Roland Whittom remarked that he “could not understand how we could have allowed the man to dominate us so.” Only when faced with a possible mutiny did Sandford agree to return.
When The Coronet finally limped into a Maine harbor on October 21st, six people had died of scurvy and many more were critically ill. Sandford was immediately arrested for kidnapping, but when inspectors saw the condition of the boat and crew, Sandford was arrested for more serious charges, “that he did unlawfully, knowingly, and willingly allow a ship to proceed on a voyage at sea without sufficient provisions.” At his trial he admitted his guilt to the jury but claimed he was only doing what God had ordered. He was sentenced to ten years in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. Three years were cut off from his sentence for good behavior.
The final blow to the movement occurred after Sandford returned from prison. He was unhappy with the poverty and listlessness at Shiloh and retreated to Boston in 1919. He became increasingly paranoid, driving in cars with shades pulled down and keeping all the curtains in his house drawn. Despite being abandoned by Sandford, Shiloh still numbered almost four hundred members.
In February 1920 a civil suit was brought against William Hastings, a member of Shiloh, for the custody of six of his eight children who were still living in Shiloh. Their mother had died and her family, along with the two eldest children, sued Hastings for nonsupport. Although Sandford was not a defendant in the trial, this was the case that would finally bring his church down.
On the stand, the Hastings children recounted the poverty they had experienced. Ten-year-old David said he couldn’t ever remember having had breakfast before school, although he did have lard on his bread as a Christmas present. His older sister Mary recounted how, because she was too malnourished, she was hidden in the woods when Child Welfare inspectors came. Neighbors testified to feeding starving children. In his testimony William admitted that they did not have enough to eat, but he refused to work for wages as it was against God’s law. He was living on faith even if his children starved, indeed, as they had most of their lives. Hastings lost the battle and his children were taken from him.
Shiloh stood at a turning point. Sandford’s attorney warned him that other families would use the Hastings case as precedent and that soon most of the children would be taken from Shiloh. God then sent word to Sandford in Boston that it was now acceptable for full-time members to earn a wage. It was a simple thing really, but it destroyed the movement. When men went to work in the mills and farms surrounding Shiloh, the atmosphere of holiness and separateness was removed. The Bible School closed, and in one month the population was down to one hundred members. Members who had listened to Sandford’s words finally wondered why God would change his mind on something so pivotal to the movement. If they could earn a wage, they could wait for the Lord’s return in more comfortable settings. It was no longer necessary to suffer in order to live the Christian life. The purpose for Shiloh’s existence simply evaporated. A short time later Sandford ordered everyone to abandon Shiloh.
Sandford remained a leader of a small group of loyal followers, many of whom had endured through many hardships and tragedies. A small group of believers continues to be known as “The Kingdom.” The Shiloh complex has long since disintegrated, but in a few homes Sandford is still revered as a prophet and man of God. Shirley Nelson, whose family history is part of the history of Shiloh, puts the purpose of remembering Shiloh in perspective: “I tell it for all the innocent, for those who … are bound to be the victims, destined to fall from the cliffs of someone else’s ascent toward the highest and the best.”
The story of Shiloh is not unlike other nineteenth century American religious experiments that emerged around a single authoritarian leader. One way to achieve an understanding of current abusive movements is to step back and take a broader, historical perspective. An examination of Sandford’s Shiloh reveals amazing parallels to the spiritually abusive groups of today.
The lesson we learn from Frank Sandford is that there is indeed nothing new about “new” Christian movements. Now, as in the past, the spiritual power holders exert strong control-oriented leadership and exercise immense influence in the day-to-day lives of adherents. In the present, like the past, Christian groups claim new divine revelation through inspired prophets or preachers who “receive a word from the Lord” regularly. Like Sandford and his predecessors, today’s movements express the conviction they alone are the repository of “truth,” or that they have been chosen by God to restore a lost or dormant spiritual vitality. Both groupings share a strong consciousness of persecution; both illustrate attitudes of negativity toward established churches; both view their “spiritual family” as superior to the biological family; and both have exhibited concern about the role and fate of ex-members. In short, the narrative of churches that abuse has important beginnings in our past.
Table of Contents: Churches That Abuse
- Chapter 1: A View From Within
- Chapter 2: Fringe and Fanaticism – Abusive Churches Can Go Over The Edge
- Chapter 3: Abusive Churches Are Not New
- Chapter 4: Abusive Churches Misuse Spiritual Authority
- Chapter 5: Abusive Churches Use Fear, Guilt, and Threats
- Chapter 6: Abusive Churches See Themselves As Special
- Chapter 7: Abusive Churches Foster Rigidity
- Chapter 8: Abusive Churches Discourage Questions
- Chapter 9: Abusive churches make leaving painful
- Chapter 10: Abusive Churches Present A Warning
- Chapter 11: Abusive Churches Will Always Exist
- Churches That Abuse: Introduction
- Notice & Disclaimer
- Contents / Audio Version
- Publishers Information
- Preface & Acknowledgements
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Notes for Chapter 3
1 Martin E. Marty, Pilgrims in Their Own Land (New York: Penguin , 1984), 341.
2 Ibid., 349.
3 Shirley Nelson, Fair Clear and Terrible (Latham, N.Y.: British American Publishing, 1989), 57.
4 Ibid., 67.
5 Ibid., 381.
6 Ibid., 191.
7 Ibid., 162.
8 Ibid., 248-49.
9 Ibid., 133.
10 Ibid., 127.
11 Ibid., 148.
12 Ibid., 205.
13 Ibid., 253.
14 Ibid., 105-06.
15 Ibid., 106.
16 Ibid., 90.
17 Ibid., 252.
18 Ibid., 91.
19 Ibid., 21.
20 Ibid., 254.
21 Ibid., 160.
22 Ibid., 224.
23 Ibid., 165.
24 Ibid., 208.
25 Ibid., 209.
26 Ibid., 210.
27 Ibid., 236-37.
28 Ibid., 329.
29 Ibid., 431.
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Related topic(s): Churches That Abuse, Ronald Enroth, spiritual abuse
First published (or major update) on Friday, August 22, 2008.
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