DURHAM — To see the Shiloh Chapel today, perched atop a hill and surrounded by trees, it is hard to imagine that just a century ago it was home to a religious group that some viewed as a cult with global ambitions.  

The church was led by Frank Sandford, who came to Durham in 1894 and claimed to hear God whispering to him that he needed to establish a band of purified Christians, absolutely obedient to the Bible. He would grow a church to house the largest Bible school in the world, home to more than 500 people and part of a self-sustaining community with a hospital, bakery and shops.

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His teachings had a tight hold in Durham for decades, even after he was convicted of manslaughter when some of his missionaries died of scurvy and Sandford was accused of child abuse, resulting in the Bible school’s headquarters moving to Boston in 1920.

Many people in Durham believed in Sandford’s teaching for years following his death, while others began to diverge. Some families were divided over their belief in the teachers, according to Ron Parker, current pastor of Shiloh Chapel. It was not until the late 1990s that the Shiloh of today, a nondenominational church with a congregation of about 75 people, separated from Sandford’s Kingdom Christian Ministries.

“It has a colorful history,” Parker said, adding that there are “a lot of chapters to the book” about Shiloh.

As one of Durham’s historical sites, and one listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the building has gotten a lot of attention over the years, with people often requesting tours.

This weekend, the Shiloh Chapel is teaming up with the Durham Historical Society to offer a now-sold-out, three-part tour of the structure with all proceeds going to the Historical Society.

“People are so interested because of the swirling stories,” Parker said.

Linda Craig, one of the tour leaders, said that a lot of people are interested in visiting as a means of exploring their own spiritual journeys. Plus, she said, “it’s a cool old building” with a lot of interesting architecture.

Each tour will start in the chapel with a 30-minute presentation about the building’s history, led by Parker.

“It’s trying to explain a complicated religious history and separate fact from fiction,” he said. The second part of the event will be a tour of the building, winding up all six flights to the top of the tower, a room with windows on all sides that was once dedicated to prayer around the clock. The tour will include a drive to the cemetery in the woods.

Both Parker and Craig’s grandparents lived and worked at Shiloh at its height, with Craig’s grandmother working in the hospital and Parker’s grandfather a cobbler.

“Our roots run deep,” he said.

However, the tour also serves to look at Shiloh’s present and future.

“Who are we today? Are we helping people?” Parker said. He hopes so. They are active in the community, hosting events and acting as a meeting place for various groups and organizations.

Craig said that ultimately she was excited to “meet the curious face to face and have a good time.”

The historic Shiloh Chapel in Durham. (Contributed photo)

The Rev. Ron Parker looks at an illustration showing the Shiloh Chapel of about 100 years ago. (Hannah LaClaire/Times Record).