Saturday, May 27, 2006

Fair, Clear and Terrible

I’ve just finished reading, for the first time, a very intriguing book by Shirley Nelson titled Fair Clear and Terrible: A Strange Fragment of American History.

The book is about a man named Frank Sandford and a religious community, known as ‘Shiloh’, that he started in Durham, Maine. Publisher’s Weekly had this to say about the book:

The colony of Shiloh in southern Maine was a movement in miniature of 19th century American religious extremism. Led by Frank Sanford, self-proclaimed prophet of the Second Coming of Christ--a man who may well have had a personality disorder--this repressively anti-intellectual, patriarchal community set itself apart from the world until its "scattering" in 1920. Novelist Nelson ( The Last Year of the War ), a descendant of Shiloh residents, tells the grim story in numbing detail enlivened by an "insider's" zeal. Over its 25-year lifespan, as the mission expanded, the anxiety of the members about their spiritual worthiness was exacerbated by Sanford's purging tactics. Ravaged by disease and deprivation, the colonists perdured, even after Sanford's imprisonment for manslaughter.”

I read this book with particular personal interest since I used to attend Fairwood Bible Institute, the very school Sandford started, though it has subsequently changed its name and location. (To read more about the movement Sandford started, which now calls itself 'The Kingdom', click HERE.)

In our day and age, it is easy to just write someone like Frank Sandford off as a religious fanatic and megalomaniac. As Shirley Nelson wrote, “In our present-day fascination with the surface of things, we tend either to denounce a religion like Sandford’s or sentimentalise it or tolerate or ignore it – unless some tragedy results. Too often we fail to understand it…” I want to understand where this man went wrong. I want to understand what compels a man to pass by numerous ports where he could have purchased provisions before sailing into the North Atlantic with a boat full of starving women and children? What compelled Sandford to insist that loyalty to himself and God meant the men in his movement couldn’t seek employment, even when their children were starving? Why did he demand that the people in his community refuse medical treatment, even when such a refusal could (and did) lead to death?

There may be many answers to these questions. Certainly one of the areas Sandford went wrong was that his religion chopped life into a plethora of false divisions. One of these was an unbiblical division between means and ends.

Reformed theology has always recognized that if God wills an end, then He wills the means to that end. So if God wills that we be provided with daily bread, He also wills the means for that provision, which is that we work. If God wills that we should have health, he provides the means for that health which is medical treatment. Though sometimes God may provide money or healing through extraordinary or miraculous means, normally He works through the channels of vocation, as people fulfil the dominion mandate given to Adam. This gives a unity to our experience in the world and enables us to reject the divided field between the sacred and the secular, between vocation and ministry.

Frank Sandford, on the other hand, constantly lived in a divided field with a radical disjunction between the sacred and the secular. Thus, he expected the (spiritual) end result without the ('secular') means. So if money was required, he wouldn’t send his people out to work, but would send them into the chapel to pray. (At one point he expected his people to pray everyday from 9:00 AM to midnight, seven days a week for three whole months. No one ever suggested the problem might be solved by seeking employment – that would have been to compromise.) If someone was sick, praying for healing was antithetical to seeking medical treatment, the former being ‘God’s way’ and the later being the secular way.

Even with things like seeking God’s guidance, Sandford set up disjunctions, expecting the end result without the means. Guidance was not sought through the means of scripture but, rather, by waiting for God to drop the words into his head. Thus, when he did finally instruct his men to start providing for their families, it was not because scripture said “if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8), but because God had given him the word ‘Work’. Even that was only in response to litigation from people who were concerned about the starving children.

Like the evangelist Finney who thought he could schedule when a revival would occur just by pouring enough money and energy into his projects, or the numerous Christians who try to bring revival through revivalism, Frank Sandford thought he could achieve God’s work by sheer force and determination alone. For example, he conducted numerous ‘prayer drives’ in which he often set a deadline for when the Lord had to provide. God became subservient to man’s control, so that anything could be achieved if only you prayed long and hard enough.

It’s true that a lot can be achieved by force and determination, especially with someone as dynamic as Frank Sandford. As I read Fair Clear and Terrible, I was struck by the hypnotic power Sandford was able to wield over people, to get them to do almost anything. Yet this power was necessarily limited by the fact that although he was good at controlling people, he was not good at organising them. A good organiser is cognisant of the small needs as well as the big needs, because he recognizes that it is the collection of small problems that eventually threaten the bigger project. The numerous setbacks, failures and defections Sandford sustained normally always arose because of his legion small-scale oversights. He could raise funds for huge buildings, yet he couldn’t provide tooth brushes for his women; he could finance two yachts and a voyage around the globe, yet he couldn’t provide money for the basic needs of the children back at home. He could preach grand sermons about turning the hearts of fathers to their sons and restoring families, but in practice he was impotent at keeping relationships together (and, in fact, numerous times he championed divorce, separation and division between parents and children). Thus, when the community did eventually collapse, it was destroyed from the inside out like a diseased tree that can no longer bear its own weight.

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