Feast of Elias Benjamin Sanford (June 13)   Leave a comment

Above:  Flag of Connecticut

Image in the Public Domain



U.S. Methodist then Congregationalist Minister and Ecumenist

Elias Benjamin Sanford comes to this, A Great Cloud of Witnesses:  An Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days, via G. Scott Cady and Christopher L. Webber, A Year with American Saints (2006).

Sanford was simultaneously of his time and ahead of it.  He transformed his time.

Once upon a time, in the United States of America, anti-Roman Catholicism was a dominant characteristic of Protestantism.  (It remains a dominant characteristic of fundamentalism and much of evangelicalism.  The mainline has repented of its anti-Roman Catholicism.  For example, the United Church of Christ, with Puritan/Congregationalist heritage, has become a haven for married former Roman Catholic priests seeking a way to continue in ordained ministry.)  This bias was the mirror image of a negative Roman Catholic attitude toward other branches of Christianity prior to the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), when the rest of we Christians, whether Protestant, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, or Oriental Orthodox, formally became “separated brethren.”  This was a declaration that echoed Pope Leo XIII (d. 1903).  Not all American Protestants were anti-Roman Catholic, just as not all American Roman Catholics thought that non-Roman Catholic Christians were bound for damnation.  Nevertheless, these hardline attitudes were baked into religious cultures.  In 1928, when the Democratic Party nominated Governor Alfred Smith for the presidency, Smith’s Roman Catholicism became a political issue.  During the primary season of 1960, when Senator John F. Kennedy campaigned for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, his Roman Catholicism became a political issue.  George L. Ford, Executive Director of the National Association of Evangelicals, wrote a pamphlet, A Roman Catholic President:  How Free from Church Control?  (I own a copy of this pamphlet.)

Above:  The Cover of the Pamphlet

Scan by Kenneth Randolph Taylor

Sanford’s life and ministry played out in the culture of anti-Roman Catholic Protestantism.

That summary is objectively accurate.  Know, O reader, that I refuse to condone religious bigotry.  I come from a Protestant background, mainly United Methodism in the rural South.  I, an Episcopalian, consider myself an Anglican, not a Protestant.  To be precise, I describe myself as an Anglican-Lutheran-Catholic, for “Anglican” and “Episcopalian” cover a great range of theological ground.  I affirm Transubstantiation, all seven sacraments, and the 73 book-canon of scripture.  How can I be a Protestant?  I am too Protestant to be a Roman Catholic and too Roman Catholic to be a Protestant.  And, as anyone who follows, this, my Ecumenical Calendar, should know, names of many Roman Catholics, whether Venerables, Beati, fully canonized, or not formally recognized, are present here.  To paraphrase what Martin Luther may or may not have said at the Diet of Worms (1521), I will do no other.

Above:  The Former First United Methodist Church, Thomaston, Connecticut

Structure erected in 1866

Congregation seemingly closed in 2018

Image Source = Google Earth

Sanford was originally a Methodist.  He, born in Westbrook, Connecticut, on June 6, 1843, graduated from Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut (B.A., 1865).  Our saint served as a minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church (extant 1784-1939) in Thomaston, Connecticut, from 1865 to 1867.  Then he became a Congregationalist.  Our saint spent the first half of 1868 traveling in Europe.

Above:  The United Church of Christ in Cornwall, Cornwall, Connecticut

Structure erected in 1842

Image Source = Google Earth

Sanford, back in the United States, served as a Congregationalist minister in rural Connecticut.  He also studied at Yale.  Our saint’s first parish in his new denomination was First Congregational Church, Cornwall, Connecticut (1868-1872).  For the next decade, he supplied in Northfield and Thomaston, Connecticut.  Sanford’s final pastorate was the First Congregational Church in Westbrook, Connecticut (1882-1894).

Above:  First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Westbrook, Connecticut

Image in the Public Domain

Sanford made the transition to ecumenical Protestant work.  He, the Editor of Church Union magazine since 1873, served as the Secretary of the Open and Institutional Church League (founded in 1894, from 1895 to 1900), committed to opening church buildings for social service.  In that same vein, our saint served as the General Secretary of the National Federation of Churches and Christian Workers from 1900 to 1908.  Sanford generally opposed the organic union of denominations on the grounds that mergers brought branches of Protestantism closer to “submission to Rome.”  In context, Sanford’s Protestant ecumenism was a way of resisting Roman Catholicism.  He helped to found the Federal Council of Churches (1908-1950), a forerunner of the National Council of Churches (1950-).  Our saint served as corresponding secretary (1908-1913) then as a honorary secretary (1913-1932) of the Federal Council of Churches.

Sanford, 89 years old, died in Middlefield, Connecticut, on July 3, 1932.





Lord Jesus Christ, Good Shepherd, thank you for tending to us, members of your flock.

May we, rejoicing in your work of breaking down barriers,

recognize each other as sheep of your flock, and therefore, work together, for your glory.

In the Name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Isaiah 49:1-6

Psalm 95

1 Corinthians 1:10-17

John 17:20-26





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