Jan 17, 2024

The wild story of a Maine cult leader who sailed the world as his followers died of scurvy

Emily Burnham
Bangor Daily News
January 17, 2024

While well-known cults like Scientology, NXIVM and the Branch Davidians continue to be the subject of countless hours of TV shows and podcasts, there are many other lesser-known cults in other parts of the world — including right here in Maine.

This story goes back more than a century, to a charismatic evangelical preacher in a small Maine town, whose domineering ways and apocalyptic beliefs ended up killing seven of his followers and sending him to prison.

All that is left of the Holy Ghost and Us religious compound is the chapel, which still stands in the Androscoggin County town of Durham, not far from Brunswick. Around the turn of the 20th century, however, there were facilities there housing hundreds of followers of Frank Sandford, a Bowdoinham-born farm boy turned preacher, self-proclaimed prophet and, eventually, convicted criminal.

Sandford was born in 1862, and attended Bates College. At age 18, he experienced a religious conversion, and went on to attend Bates’ Cobb Divinity School. He dropped out at age 24, with his informal style of preaching and religious fervor alienating him from the rest of his peers.

He served as a pastor at Baptist churches in Maine and New Hampshire before having what Bates scholar William Hiss described as a “nervous breakdown.” Sandford left the church in 1888 and spent two years traveling, visiting Japan, India, China and the Holy Land. He returned to Maine in 1891 ostensibly to preach again, but instead began having religious visions. After marrying in 1893, he left the church again — this time for good, starting his own ministry and bible school.

That school became the Holy Ghost and Us, more commonly known under its unofficial name of Shiloh, which Sandford founded in 1896 in Durham. Over the next 24 years, Sandford would amass hundreds of followers who devoted their lives to God — and to Sandford.

Followers spent their days praying, studying the Bible or doing chores or manual labor, always at the directive of Sandford, who exercised complete authority over his flock and convinced many to hand over their money and property to him and the church. They built a massive, 500-room compound that could house up to 1,000 people, with the chapel and its seven-story tower as its centerpiece.

According to the book “Fair, Clear and Terrible: The Story of Shiloh” by Shirley Nelson, a descendant of Sandford followers, God wanted Sandford and his followers to establish a church in what was then known as Palestine. Sandford also claimed he could cure cancer and other diseases through prayer and the laying on of hands.

In 1900, Sandford announced that he was the chosen prophet Elijah, third in authority only to God himself and Jesus Christ. He instituted harsh policies including long, psychologically abusive trials meant to prove a member’s devotion, corporal punishment of children and periods of fasting, even for members that were ill or very young or old. His controversial methods garnered much media coverage at the time, with newspapers including the Bangor Daily News calling Sandford a “lunatic” and a “shocking blasphemer.”

One of those periods of fasting led to the 1903 death of a 14-year-old boy, which led to Sandford’s January 1904 indictment on charges of manslaughter and child abuse, for whipping and withholding food from his 6-year-old son. He was convicted of both charges, though the charges were reversed in 1905 by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

Toward the end of his legal battles, Sandford used church money  to purchase several yachts, including one called the Coronet. Starting in 1906, he and 30 followers — then dubbed “The Kingdom,” instead of Shiloh — sailed around the world on a purported missionary journey. According to contemporary accounts, no one ever went ashore to preach. Sandford instead opted to use “intercessory prayer” in the form of sounding trumpets as they passed by various ports.

After learning that a member of his Jerusalem outpost was planning to leave the church, he picked up the woman, Florence Whittaker, and brought her back to Maine on the ship. There,  he kept her prisoner on board until she was freed by a court order. In 1909, Whittaker sued Sandford for unlawful detention. Sandford promptly set sail again with plans to do more missionary work — all while being pursued by authorities in ports across the world.

One of his ships ran aground in West Africa and was destroyed, and in May 1911, Sandford brought all 70 of his followers from both ships on board the Coronet, which was now dangerously overloaded and undersupplied with food and water. Sandford then received a “vision” that they were meant to sail to Greenland to establish a mission station there.

By the time the ship had reached the Grand Banks, outside Newfoundland, they had begun to run out of food. In all, six passengers died from scurvy before the Coronet finally arrived in Portland in October 1911, where Sandford was arrested, and more charges naming him responsible for the deaths on board soon followed.

Bangor Daily News coverage at the time claimed Sandford ate two square meals a day on the ship, while the rest of the people on board survived on half rations and only “three swallows of water.” A New York Times story at the time called him one of the “most remarkable religious leaders in the world,” even as he faced prison time.

Sandford represented himself at trial and said all his actions were commands from God, and that the deaths were God’s punishment for disobedience. He was found guilty of all charges and was sentenced in December 1911 to ten years in prison.

Sandford was released in 1918 and returned to Durham to find his church in disarray. Many members, including his own children, had left, and the Children’s Protective Society of Maine, a precursor to Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services, recommended all minors be removed from the community. By 1920, the church had mostly disbanded, and Sanford went into retirement in upstate New York, where he died in 1948.

Today, an offshoot, Kingdom Christian Ministries, has churches in Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Georgia and Florida. An unrelated church worships at the Shiloh Chapel in Durham, overlooking the Androscoggin River. No other trace of the massive, 500-room compound remains.

The chapel itself, with its seven-story tower, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places due to its unusual architecture and troubled, fascinating past — an unusual and mostly forgotten chapter in Maine history.




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