J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

People Who Prayed in Glas Houses

In 1728, a Presbyterian minister named John Glas was asked to leave his pulpit in Tealing, Scotland, because he had published some unorthodox religious views. He then started a small Christian sect that lasted for about a century. In Scotland his adherents were called “Glasites.” In North America they became known as Sandemanians after Robert Sandeman, Glas’s son-in-law and chief disciple.

In late 1764 Sandeman arrived in Boston, come to convert people to “a return to the religious practices of the primitive Christians,” in the words of Jean F. Hankins’s article on the movement in the New England Quarterly for 1987. The Religious Creeds and Statistics of Every Christian Denomination in the United States and British Provinces, published by John Hayward in 1836, described what set the Sandemanians apart from other Protestant congregations:

They differ from other Christians in their weekly administration of the Lord’s Supper; their love-feasts, of which every member is not only allowed, but required to partake, and which consist of their dining together at each other’s houses in the interval between the morning and afternoon service; their kiss of charity used on this occasion, at the admission of a new member, and at other times when they deem it necessary and proper; their weekly collection before the Lord’s Supper, for the support of the poor, and defraying other expenses; mutual exhortation; abstinence from blood and things strangled; washing each other’s feet, when, as a deed of mercy, it might be an expression of love; the precept concerning which, as well as other precepts, they understand literally; community of goods, so far as that every one is to consider all that he has in his possession and power liable to the calls of the poor and the church; and the unlawfulness of laying up treasures upon earth, by setting them apart for any distant, future, or uncertain use.

They allow of public and private diversions, so far as they are not connected with circumstances really sinful; but apprehending a lot to be sacred, disapprove of lotteries, playing at cards, dice, &c.
Sandeman started to hold religious services in 1765, first at blacksmith Edward Foster’s house, later in the long room of the Green Dragon Tavern and the North Latin School. He eventually moved on to Danbury, Connecticut, where he died in 1771.

By then there were regular Sandemanian meetings not only in Boston and Danbury, but also in Providence, Rhode Island, which worried the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles. Like other Congregationalist ministers, he distrusted any form of worship that didn’t fit into his established hierarchy.

To be sure, there were significant religious differences between mainstream New England Calvinism and the Sandemanian creed. Though Glas and his followers rejected good deeds as a way to salvation, they didn’t emphasize repentance from sins like Puritans and their revivalists. Sandemanian worship services seemed strange, with all that foot-washing and kissing. And though they praised charity and brotherhood, eighteenth-century Congregationalists liked the idea of private wealth; the new sect’s emphasis on communal meals, weekly collections for the poor, and a theoretical abjuration of individual property seemed to be taking Christianity too far.

There were other, non-religious reasons that most New Englanders distrusted the Sandemanians. In the 1760s folks were suspicious about anything from Scotland. And Glas’s belief that true Christians shouldn’t get involved in politics came out as support for the established government—i.e., the Crown.

Thus, in the late 1760s the Boston Sandemanians gained a reputation as friends of the royal government. By then the group included some notable men, most drawn away from Congregationalist meetings: The royal government’s favored printer, John Mein, was also linked to Sandeman, though not apparently a member of the church.

Among the most visible Sandemanians in Boston was Shippie Townsend, who had withdrawn from the Old South congregation by 1769, as discussed yesterday. Townsend even hosted Sandemanian services in his house in the North End for a while before the group bought property for their own church. And when a Congregationalist minister published a pamphlet meant to refute Sandeman’s preaching, Townsend took up his pen.

TOMORROW: A blockmaker becomes an author.

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