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Sandemanianism At The Westminster Conference

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Category Articles
Date December 17, 2004

Rev. Robert Strivens of Banbury spoke at the 2004 Westminster Conference on “Sandemanianism Then and Now.” All I know about this movement is from the paper Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones gave 35 years ago on Sandemanianism at this Conference. I talked with Robert Strivens before he gave the paper and asked him whether Dr Lloyd-Jones had given an accurate presentation, and then during the question session Gary Brady raised his hand and asked Robert whether what Dr. Lloyd-Jones had written was a true account of Sandemanianism. Both father-in-law and son-in-law were assured that basically the Doctor had got it spot on.

I am reading the new fascinating autobiography of Paul Johnson’s early life, “The Vanished Landscapes: A 1930s Childhood in the Potteries” (Weidenfeld and Nicolson). He can remember one of their churches in Tunstall: “A house near the Square was the haunt of Sandemanians or Glasites. This weird sect had been started in the mid-eighteenth century by a Presbyterian Scotch elder, author of a famous tract called “Letters on Theron and Aspaslio” (1757). He married a buoyant lady called Catherine, daughter of John Glas, who founded a sect of his own. I know nothing of the theology of the Sandemanians, or the Glasites for that matter, or why they turned from the established churches. What interested me at the time was being told they held a ceremony every Sunday, attended by the entire congregation, and washed each other’s feet. Feet tended to be smelly in the Potteries and the source of endless coarse jokes. The Sandemanians, as I glimpsed them through the windows of their chapel, struck me as rather solemn, and the idea of these starched-collar gentlemen getting down to scrubbing each other’s feet in pails of soapy water was intriguing. Also, the weekly foot-washing ceremony took place when we were in our own church, so I never saw it, and rumour has it that the Sandemanian church is now ‘extinct’.”

The facts are these, that John Glas became a minister in the Tealing Church of Scotland in 1719. He became convinced that its established status was unacceptable. The church was locked against him in 1730 and so he preached in the fields nearby. Soon he moved to Dundee and then to Perth where he met Robert Sandeman who married his daughter. Glas became the pastor in Perth built by his followers. His writings expounded his more eccentric views on foot-washing, the holy kiss, not storing wealth, the useless nature of confessions of faith, and unanimity insisted on in church decisions. Excommunication was practiced but a second chance was given for the repentant, but one alone. The churches controlled the use of the members’ private money.

Glas’s work was taken over by his extreme son-in-law, Robert Sandeman. He gained notoriety by his response to James Hervey’s “Theron and Aspasio”. Sandeman attacked it in his “Letters” on the ground that Hervey had made faith a work of man which earns salvation. Sandeman held that bare assent to the work of Christ is alone necessary. Sandeman left England in 1764 to found churches in the USA. His works are repetitive and of low intellectual worth.

What form has Sandemanian’s understanding of faith as bare assent taken in the 21st century? Some in the Conference suggested the worst kinds of ‘History of Redemption’ preaching with its absolutising of exegesis. Also there are study groups, Protestant and Catholic, which assure those who say they now believe the teaching of the first few lessons that that believing has made them Christians. One also privately thinks that the late Gordon Clark’s definition of saving faith is too near Sandemanian ideas to be acceptable.

Iain Murray, who chaired the session, steered the audience into discussing the nature of a sect. “What is the distinction between primary and secondary truths and practices?” someone asked. I ventured to answer like this, that primary doctrines are those that have significant impact on our thinking about other truths, and significant impact on how we live our lives. A secondary doctrine has very little impact on other truths or on how we live the Christian life.

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