In the summer of 1900, Charles Fox Parham, founder of the Bethel Bible School in Topeka, Kansas, the birthplace of the modern Pentecostal Movement, journeyed throughout the United States visiting various Christian utopias and Bible centers in an effort to identify a community which replicated the Apostolic experience of the New Testament Church. One stop on this spiritual odyssey was Frank Sandford’s commune in Durham, Maine called Holy Ghost and Us Society. Sandford’s work, which he founded in the 1894, emphasized missionary work, sanctification, divine healing, and eschatology, which must have resonated deeply with Charles Parham, who had left the Methodist Episcopal Church to pursue these selfsame teachings. Ultimately, Frank Sandford, like so many other utopian leaders, turned out to be a religious megalomaniac and a dogmatic despot. His Holy Ghost and Us Society was embroiled in deep controversy, and Rev. Sandford was eventually imprisoned for his radical abuse of power and people.
Frank Weston Sandford, who was born in Bowdoinham, Maine on 2 October 1862, graduated from Bates College and attended seminary at Cobb Divinity School, a Freewill Baptist institution. He was ordained and assumed the pastorate at the Baptist Church in Topsham, Maine. He also became the principal of the Topsham schools (Fogarty 88).
Despite his Baptist training, Rev. Sandford became greatly interested in the Higher Life Christian movement and eventually embraced the Holiness teaching of Dwight Moody, founder of the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and A.B. Simpson, organizer of the Christian Missionary Alliance. Sandford became a confirmed premillennialist and adopted an impassioned vision of end-time missionary evangelism. In 1893, Sandford claims to have received a brief directive from God: “Go!” In response, he resigned his position at the Baptist Church and organized the Holy Ghost and Us Bible School. In 1894, Sandford and his associate Charles E. Holland broke ground in rural Durham, Maine for the headquarters of his commune, which Sandford claimed as ground zero for the “World’s Evangelicazation [sic] Crusade on Apostolic Principles.” (“Holy Ghosters . . .” 11).
In 1896, Sandford completed the centerpiece of the Holy Ghost and Us compound, the Temple of Truth. The magnificent buildings were constructed by students at the commune at a price of $100,000. Above the Temple flew the flags of the United States and Britain, along with a third banner representing Israel (Fogarty 88). These standards symbolized Sandford’s acceptance of the notion of British Israelism, or the belief that Anglo-Saxons are the direct descendants of the Jewish diaspora and are the rightful heirs of God’s promises. Interestingly, Charles Parham also embraced this idea and was an avowed Zionist.
At the time of Parham’s visit to Sandford’s work, the commune was in its heyday with over 600 residents. Eventually, branch missionary centers were established in New York and Jerusalem, Palestine. But as the intensity of the work increased, so did Sandford’s hubris. One detractor listed Sandford’s outrageous self-assignations as:
Apostle, prophet, overseers of the world’s evangelization, baptizer of all God’s true sheep . . . Elijah—the restorer of all things; and forerunner of the Messiah’s second advent; David, who is to rule the whole earth and prepare the throne for the Messiah; the ‘Branch’; High Priest of the Melchisedech priesthood; and first and chief of the two witnesses . . . (qtd. in Fogarty 91-92)
Conditions in the Holy Ghost and Us Society greatly deteriorated after 1900. Sandford began requiring frequent extended fasts from both food and drink, generally lasting 72 hours. Only pregnant mothers and the sick were permitted to break declared fasts after 36 hours. Even babies were denied food or drink during periods of abstinence (Fogarty 90-91).
In 1904, Sandford was indicted after the death of Leander A. Bartlett, a fourteen-year-old boy who died on 25 January 1903 of diptheria while being forced to fast. According to court records, Bartlett was also denied medical attention because of Sandford’s belief in divine healing (“State of Maine v. Frank W. Sandford”). Ultimately, Sandford was acquitted of manslaughter charges, but he was fined $100 for cruelty to his son, John, who was also forced to participate in communal fasts (Fogarty 92).
Sandford’s most serious trouble involved missionary excursions on the opulent yachts owned by the Holy Ghost and Us Society, aptly named Kingdom, a sobriquet for the Durham community, and Coronet, taken from one translation of Revelation 6:2: “ . . . and a coronet was given unto him, and he went forth conquering and to conquer.” In July 1910, the captain of the Kingdom, A.K. Perry, was arrested after a civil suit was brought against Perry and Sandford by Mrs. Florence Whittaker, wife of one of Sandford’s missionaries, who claimed that she and her four children were detained on the yacht against their will after returning to the United States from a missionary trip to Palestine. (“Special to the NYT” 7 ).
In October 1911, Sandford’s demise was sealed when the Coronet arrived in Portland, Maine after several months at sea with a starving crew and passengers. According to reports, all were reduced to a skeletal state by starvation. Six died and were buried at sea during the voyage, and Rev. Sandford was arrested for the death of one Charles Hughey. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to ten years in the federal prison in Atlanta, Georgia. At his sentencing, the delusional Sandford reportedly smiled and said: “I am glad to be just where I am. I am still in His work, and as soon as I reach my new level I shall begin to dig in. In fact, I am even now engaged in my work” (“Sandford to Serve . . . “ 5).
Frank Weston Sandford was released from prison in 1918 and died in 1948 in relative obscurity. His missionary society waned considerably following his arrest, but the church continues today as Shiloh Church in Durham, Maine. Sandford’s vision of worldwide evangelism was never fully realized by the group he formed. But, Charles Fox Parham, who may have adapted some of Sandford’s earlier ideas in the establishment of his own Bible school in Topeka was instrumental in igniting and stoking the missionary fire that spread the Pentecostal message around the globe. Though Parham admired Sandford’s efforts, he returned to Kansas persuaded that Sandford’s work was about to be eclipsed by an even greater Apostolic restoration. On 1 January 1901, the Spirit fell at Bethel Bible College, and the Holy Ghost and Us was indeed superceded by God’s greatest end-time work—the Holy Ghost in Us!
Fogarty, Robert S. All Things New: American Communes and Utopian Movements, 1860-1914. Chicago: Univ of Chicago Press, 1990.
“HOLY GHOSTERS STARVING :Red Star Liner Lapland Sends a Boatload of Food to the Coronet.. ” New York Times (1857-1922) 2 October 1911 ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2006), ProQuest. Web. 12 Dec. 2009.
“SANDFORD TO SERVE TEN YEARS IN PRISON :Shilch Leader Smiles as He Is Sentenced for Causing Six Deaths on Yacht Coronet. STARTS FOR ATLANTA, GA. Gets Maximum Imprisonment on One Count, Five Others Continued -Crowd Bids Him Good-Bye.. ” New York Times (1857-Current file) 19 December 1911 ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2006), ProQuest. Web. 12 Dec. 2009.
Special to The New York Times.. “HOLY GHOSTER ARRESTED :Master of Sanford’s Barkentine Kingdom Under Bonds on Mrs. Whittaker’s Suit.. ” New York Times (1857-1922) 26 July 1910 ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2006), ProQuest. Web. 12 Dec. 2009.
STATE OF MAINE v. FRANK W. SANDFORD. SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT OF MAINE, FRANKLIN 99 Me. 441; 59 A. 597; 1905 Me. 3 January 3, 1905, Decided.