DURHAM — Its name was Shiloh, after the ancient town in Israel. And the secrecy shrouding the magnificent structure atop a sandy hill near the Androscoggin River — the gold crown on its seven-story turret shimmering in the sun — left many townspeople with suspicion.

Eugene Elcik was raised roughly a mile from Shiloh and was aware of that suspicion. He said his parents warned him to stay away from the property, but his budding curiosity overcame any sense of fear.

One night in the early 1940s, Elcik and his brother, Andy, decided to sneak onto the grounds to take a look. They walked along the river before climbing the hill to the rear of the buildings.

“We were met with hostility at the top of the hill,” Elcik said. “There was a guy standing there. I guess he had some kind of a rod, but it looked like a gun to me. We were told in no uncertain terms that we were not welcomed there.”

At one time the largest Bible school in the world, Shiloh was the brainchild of charismatic religious leader Frank Weston Sandford, a former Baptist minister and Bates College graduate. He believed God spoke directly to him because he was the second coming of the prophet Elijah, as predicted in the final book of the Old Testament.

Sandford considered Shiloh a heavenly city and demanded unbridled devotion and loyalty from his followers, who had to surrender all of their earthly possessions to enter his temple.


Members prayed in two-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, continuously for more than 22 years.

Built in 1897, Shiloh at its height was a massive structure nearly a quarter-mile around, with the chapel attached to a three-story extension that gave the property the illusion of a resort hotel, like Poland Spring. Two massive 40-foot carved wooden gates led to an inner courtyard. Somewhere between 500 and 1,000 people lived at Shiloh.

The complex looked so impressive that aviator Charles Lindbergh flew over it during his tour of the United States after his famous solo flight to Paris in 1927 and reportedly thought Shiloh was the state Capitol in Augusta.

According to a story on Shiloh in the Lewiston Evening Journal on May 22, 1920, “From time to time there have come from within its walls strange tales of equally strange religious rites, tales of suffering, tales of joy, tales of miracles as well as tales of sacrifice.”

“There’s a lot of good that happened and there was a lot of crazy, not good stuff. It’s a very confusing mix,” said Pastor Ronald Parker, the current minister at Shiloh.

“He was going to try and be led by God, led by the Holy Spirit,” Shiloh historian Bill Hiss said of Sandford. “That led him to this unusual, and sometimes glorious, sometimes tragic spot.”


Sandford’s cult-like grip on his disciples eventually unraveled and he was convicted of manslaughter in 1911 when six members died of scurvy during an evangelical mission around the world.

That same year, the New York Times wrote about Sandford’s movement, “To his followers he is the direct representative of God on earth; to his detractors he is a hypnotist; to the casually interested, a fanatic.”

“It was known more as a prison to the community because people who went in there after they became members did not come out,” said Elcik, who has written the book “Shiloh: The Deception of a Cult.”

 But, as Parker noted, many found salvation and peace at Shiloh.

“I lived in Durham at Shiloh for 20 years,” Maude Johnson said in 1976 at age 93 as part of the town of Durham’s oral history project. “When the Bible School closed I stayed there and worked. I enjoyed it very much.”

Frank Sandford’s movement, which became known as The Kingdom and had chapters worldwide, continued after his conviction, but slowly declined and is now headquartered at a smaller property in New Hampshire. The members of the current Shiloh Chapel in Durham disassociated with Sandford’s denomination in 1998; it is now an independent community church with roughly 75 members.


Yet for many, the mystery surrounding Shiloh remains to this day.

Sandford’s early life

Frank Sandford was born Oct. 2, 1862, in Bowdoinham. At an early age he demonstrated a natural ability to capture an audience when he spoke. He was teaching in various schools by age 16.

After joining the Free Baptist Church, Sandford enrolled at Nichols Latin School in Lewiston, a college preparatory school affiliated with Bates College. He continued on at Bates, where he was class president and a standout catcher on the baseball team. He gave the commencement address when he graduated in 1886.

Drawn to the ministry, Sandford turned down several offers to play professional baseball to begin working for God, first at a church in Topsham.

His life changed after attending various evangelical conferences, led by the movement’s top leaders of the day including Dwight Moody and A.B. Simpson. At one of these conferences in Old Orchard Beach, Sandford met his future wife, Helen Kinney, the daughter of a wealthy cotton broker. Kinney had traveled the world working as a missionary.


Sandford’s own trip to visit Christian ministry outposts in Japan, China, India and Palestine provided him with a conviction he carried with him the rest of his life.

“He came back with a vision which very few of the other evangelists had in those days,” Hiss said. “Mr. Sandford conceived that the heathens were being born faster than they were being converted, and this notion that you were going to actually evangelize the world in any kind of mathematical population was simply nonsense. It wasn’t going to happen. There were too many people and not enough evangelists.”

A home in Durham

With his wife’s blessing, Sandford quit his job as a minister at a New Hampshire church. They gave away their life savings and went out as independent evangelists, holding tent revivals throughout Maine. Through his inspiring and fiery speaking style, his sermons began to attract a following.

“He had a tremendous charismatic personality,” Elcik said. “He could convince people of anything.”

Sandford had long believed that he could hear God’s voice talking to him. Hearing the word “build,” Sandford looked for a place to construct a Bible school to teach his followers how to evangelize and perform missionary work around the world. A Durham farmer donated a plot of land atop a sandy hill overlooking the Androscoggin River.


Relying on the grueling labor of his followers, Sandford kept preaching from his tent as his church was built. With virtually no funds, Sandford used his sermons to attract followers who were happy to give to the movement.

“This happened again and again and again,” Hiss said. “People came. They sold their farms and businesses or other holdings and they gave the proceeds to the Kingdom.”

The four-story building — containing the church, more than 20 rooms and the signature Jerusalem Tower, a seven-story turret — was completed in six months. This is the only structure still standing.

The popularity of the Shiloh movement kept growing and reached the West Coast. Followers were soon arriving from places as far away as Nova Scotia, Texas, Wisconsin and Washington state. As people came seeking a place in Sandford’s movement, more space was needed. According to the website for the town of Durham, an extension was built 260 feet long, 40 feet wide and three stories high, containing more than 500 rooms. It resembled a classic New England resort hotel.

The extension included a second shorter turret — David’s Tower — directly opposite Jerusalem Tower. The structure also included the carved wooden gates, which Sandford called the “Gates of Praise.”

The gates were part of the symbolism Sandford used with great success to make dramatic statements.


“The Shiloh community had a real talent for the dramatic,” Hiss said. “Mr. Sandford was a genius at this. He would choose symbols that would move people.”

People believed that his perceived ability to talk to God would enable them to find salvation through Sandford.

While some prospered in the rigid, cult-like society built by Sandford, others felt trapped, Elcik said. Members’ movements were restricted, many were separated from their children and they had little food to eat. That was partly because of the sandy soil surrounding the complex that made growing crops difficult.

Shiloh members also built a pair of separate buildings away from the main complex: a school called Olivet and a hospital named Bethesda. The hospital was “a misnomer,” according to Elcik. Patients were not allowed to see doctors from outside Shiloh. Treatment centered on prayer. Sandford was a strong believer in divine healing.

Walking that line was tricky for Sandford. A girl who awoke from a coma was believed to have been brought back from the dead by Sandford’s prayers. But there would be no rising of the dead when a young David Brown died.

According to Elcik, Sandford had Brown’s body brought to the top of Jerusalem’s Tower to pray for his resurrection. They prayed for more than a month over his decaying body before they secretly buried him at night.


“After (members) found out David did not come back from the dead, they began wondering about Sandford — whether or not this guy has got the power,” Elcik said.

Some of his followers became disillusioned. Leaving was difficult because everyone had surrendered their possessions to join the movement, but some were successful by escaping at night.

Elijah 2

During an evangelical convention in Auburn at a temple on the corner of Union and Summer streets, Sandford announced on Nov. 23, 1901, that he was the prophet Elijah.

According to Scripture, Elijah arrives just before the end times.

“That moment was a parting of the waters,” Hiss said. “People who were solidly behind Mr. Sandford took it as a powerful new expression of his spiritual authority and spiritual role in what God wanted him to do. There were others in the community and a whole lot outside this community who said he’s walked off the edge of the plank. He has simply lost it and this community is out of control and we’re going to have problems.”


With his community solidly established in Durham, Sandford looked to expand his evangelical crusade across the globe. He traveled to and founded chapters in Liverpool, England, and Jerusalem. The Kingdom also owned a brownstone on Massachusetts Avenue in Boston.

The movement bought the boat Coronet, which was the flagship of the New York Yacht Club. Considered the finest boat of its era, the Coronet had won several sailing races. The yacht cost $100,000 to build in 1885, Hiss said.

Sanford used the Coronet as his temple on water, where his followers would stop and pray along the coast of every continent: “evangelization of the world by drenching each continent with prayer as they sailed,” Hiss said.

During a three-year around-the-world prayer cruise on behalf of the human race, disaster struck. They were battered by numerous storms and blown far off course. When their companion ship Kingdom crashed into rocks, its passengers joined the Coronet, which seriously taxed the ship’s crew and provisions.

Sandford, however, refused to sail into port to restore supplies of food and water, believing he was following God’s command.

By the time the once-exquisite yacht reached Portland harbor in tatters, six crewmen had died of scurvy and some of the other passengers were close to death. Authorities went onboard the ship and arrested Sandford.


As owner of the boat, Sandford was tried for manslaughter in 1911 and was convicted in Portland and sentenced to 10 years in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. During trial, Sandford refused legal counsel, relying on God to defend him.

Sandford served roughly seven years in prison before getting released in 1918.

With the anti-Shiloh faction growing outside the complex, it was only a matter of time. The state investigated several reports of cruelty to both animals and children. By 1920, a judge ordered that all minors be removed, forcing the school to close.

Sandford issued an edict in 1920 allowing his followers to seek work in the community, which had been previously forbidden. In a matter of months, with the school now closed, most of the residents moved into the community or went home to their families. As few as 10 to 20 people remained living at Shiloh.

Census records at the time reveal Shiloh’s impact on the town of Durham. Its population in 1900 was 1,230 and grew to 1,625 during Shiloh’s height in 1910. The town’s population, however, nosedived by more than 50 percent over the next 20 years to 806 residents in 1930.

Every other community in Androscoggin County saw population growth during that period.


Sandford left Shiloh around 1920 and lived in secrecy in upstate New York, studying the Bible and preaching to youngsters. He died in 1948 at age 85.

In the story reporting his death, the Lewiston Evening Journal wrote, “How he died, and where; and where Sandford had spent the last 25 years of his life, nobody will tell. The leaders of the society consider it a matter of concern to no one outside of the faith. His beloved hilltop, where he started a temple of 525 rooms, now a ramshackle, broken-window building used by only a few of his followers.”

Shiloh today

The main building, with its turret, is all that remains of the former magnificent complex, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The extension, which was in poor condition, was demolished in 1952.

On a clear day, Mount Washington is visible from the top floor of Jerusalem Tower.

The third version of the crown is made of aluminum, its gold color having faded.


The original pulpit used by Sandford is still in use in the chapel.

No longer associated with Frank Standford’s movement, Shiloh Chapel is a community-oriented church run by Pastor Ron Parker. Community involvement — such as a food pantry and an upcoming car show scheduled for June — has helped to “demystify the place,” Parker said.

Parker arrived in Durham in 1987. No stranger to Shiloh, both of his grandparents had lived there, attending the Bible school.

Uncomfortable with Frank Sandford’s teachings, Parker and his staff decided to disassociate themselves from the Kingdom in 1998. The breakup, Parker said, was amicable.

“What it actually came to was we felt we could not endorse Frank Sandford’s claims and stay part of that fellowship,” he said.

“We know we are not on the same page about Frank Sandford’s ideas and identity, but we are on the same page on a lot of other stuff,” Parker said. “It pretty much centered around his application of certain Scriptures, which I disagreed with and the rest of our leadership team disagreed with.”


Some of Sandford’s remaining followers created the Kingdom Christian Ministries in 1998 to continue Sandford’s teachings. The ministry is now headquartered in Dublin, N.H., and run by Neil Sandford, Frank’s great-grandson.

Other remnants of Sandford’s followers at Shiloh formed the Elim Ministry and now meet in people’s homes in Lisbon.

The foundation of Shiloh’s hospital, Bethesda, is still visible, Parker said, but brush growth has largely hidden the location of the school, Olivet. Contractors a couple of years ago discovered large boulders buried in the ground that formed the foundation for the extension.

Now in charge of a much more contemporary Christian church at the Durham site, Parker and other church leaders contemplated changing the name but decided to stick with Shiloh.

“Shiloh, looking the way it does, I think you could call it anything you want and it would still be Shiloh for at least another generation,” Parker said.

[email protected]

For more information

  • Eugene Elcik’s book, “Shiloh: The Deception of a Cult,” is available on Amazon.com.
  • Historian Bill Hiss will give a presentation on Shiloh on March 22 at 6 p.m. at the Androscoggin Historical Society, located on the third floor of the county building in Auburn.

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