DURHAM — People passing by the historic Shiloh Chapel might notice its peculiar architecture, a four-story square structure with a tall cupola, resembling more of a hotel, rather than the traditional church with steeple.
But, like the old adage, there’s much more to the Shiloh Chapel than meets the eye. If its appearance isn’t enough to raise eyebrows, it’s long and often controversial history is.
On Oct. 13, the Durham Historical Society will host an event highlighting the property’s past, with a talk led by the Rev. Ron Parker and tours by residents Jeff Wakeman and Linda Craig. Tickets to benefit the society are $10 and can be purchased at the Town Office at 630 Hallowell Road, or at the Get & Go convenience store at 697 Royalsborough Road.
What’s now a single building where non-denominational congregations gather, the Shiloh Chapel at 38 Beulah Lane used to be much larger. Referred to both as a chapel and temple, the complex was built in 1897 by the Rev. Frank Sandford and his students from The Holy Ghost & Us Bible School.
According to Wakeman, who has attended Shiloh Chapel his entire life and has read its history in various books, the school trained missionaries and was originally built to house up to 500 people.
Sandford was initially a Baptist minister, but left the denomination and started what eventually became the Kingdom Christian Ministries.
According to Parker, soon after 1900, Sandford publicly announced his perceived role as the prophet Elijah. In doing so, Wakeman said, he assumed a much more power and control over the parish than a typical minister.
“In time Sandford announced other biblical roles as well, but the bottom line was that his authority and roles were not to be questioned,” Parker wrote in a history of the church published at www.shilohchapelmaine.org.
The Shiloh community that operated under the chapel, which the historical society calls “a home for a secretive apocalyptic Christian cult,” was very “secretive” and “unconventional,” according to Wakeman.
In the early 1900s Sandford took several followers on a round-the-world mission on a ship named Coronet and, in 1911, was arrested on manslaughter charges after six of his crew members during a voyage to Greenland died of scurvy, which Wakeman said was “considered preventable.”
Wakeman said Sandford served about seven years in prison. He and the church also faced lawsuits claiming cruelty and endangerment to children, as well as one brought by the wife of a parishioner who, while on the Coronet, claimed forcible detention.
According to Parker, the school closed in 1920 due to the increasing pressure of child custody lawsuits. The Shiloh community disbanded.
Wakeman said many followers went off to start small “The Kingdom” churches across the U.S. Many of the complex’s quarters were moved from Durham to Boston, and then to Dublin, New Hampshire, Wakeman said. The present building is all that’s left of the once quadrangular complex.
In 1975, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
According to Parker, the ministry evolved into a local church community, where he was sent to be its pastor in 1987. In 1998, the Shiloh Church completely broke away from “The Kingdom” and is now an independent church, which Wakeman said, “preaches Christ as the Lord and believes that the Bible is the inspired word of God.”
“We don’t hold onto the church’s traditions, but we acknowledge the past,” he said.
The Durham Historical Society will hold tours and talks on the historic Shiloh Chapel at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the Town Office at 630 Hallowell Road or the Get & Go convenience store at 697 Royalsborough Road.
The Shiloh Chapel in Durham was built in 1897 as part of a large religious enclave established by the Rev. Frank Sandford, the leader of an evangelical Christian cult.