Pristine Grace

Robert Sandeman
A Short Biography
by David Bishop
Robert Sandeman

     Robert Sandeman was born in Perth, Scotland in 1718. He was the second of twelve children, and was the son of a linen weaver. 

     In 1734 Sandeman’s father sent him to the University of Edinburgh to begin his studies for a career in either medicine or theology. Robert excelled in math and languages during the two years he attended university, but his studies soon came to an abrupt halt when he encountered the teachings of John Glas. 

     Glas had rejected the idea of a national church and national covenants. He believed a city magistrate had no divine right to authority in religious/church matters. Eventually he renounced the national church’s catechisms and in 1725 he established instead a small society of about one-hundred people for the purpose of following the Scriptures, and the commitment to brotherly love and mutual encouragement. He endured several court trials conducted by the Scottish church for his teachings. 

     Sandeman joined Glas’ society, and soon grew convinced that neither medicine nor a place in the Scottish church was for him. He left university and returned to Perth to begin apprenticing under his father as a linen weaver. He had joined Glas’ Edinburgh congregation by this time. Eventually he married Glas’ daughter, Catherine. His youngest brother, Thomas, later married another Glas daughter, Annie. 

     Sandeman and his brother assumed the linen weaving family business. They worked at it for seven years while Robert grew more involved with the little church in Edinburgh. Eventually, Glas urged Robert to accept an appointment as an elder. Robert was just twenty-six. A contemporary described Robert at this time as "naturally diffident, modest, and keenly conscious of his youth and inexperience.” Although hesitant to accept the solemn responsibility of the office offered to him, Robert eventually accepted, and was set apart to the elder’s office in 1744. 

     In 1746 tragedy struck. Sandeman’s wife Catherine died. They had no children and Robert never remarried. He instead devoted the rest of his life to the study of Scripture and the work of the church. For the next sixteen years Robert preached at Perth, Dundee, and Edinburgh. It was during this time that his brother William was converted. 

     In 1757 everything changed for Robert. He came to international attention after publishing “Letters on Theron and Aspasio” in which he attacked the theological teachings of James Hervey. Sandeman had spent two years dialoguing with Hervey by letter. Afterward he had an opportunity to spread the gospel message far and wide by publishing some of his letters to Hervey. His book almost immediately gave the small Glasite congregations wide, public recognition and respectability.

     The impact of Sandeman's work cannot be understated. It was felt strongly in both England, Wales and America. His book underwent five English editions. Robert became well known, and soon he was corresponding regularly with his readers. Two of his most renown readers included Samuel Pike and John Barnard. In fact, his correspondence with Pike and Barnard led to the establishment of a new congregation in London. 

     In 1763 it was decided that Robert should move to America to begin establishing some churches in the New World. Pike and Barnard would remain in London and Wales, while Robert would see to the British colonies. 

     Sandeman enjoyed success at first, establishing congregations in Boston, Portsmouth and Danbury. However, his success waned after a wave of patriotic fervor swept the land. He had remained staunch in his conviction that politics and religion should not be mixed. He found this view growing more and more politically unpopular. Eventually the American public grew to disdain his teachings, and he died suddenly in 1771 at the age of 53. 

     The first main thrust of Sandeman’s theology lay in his belief that Christ’s death upon the cross, without any additional thought or deed on the part of man, is eternally sufficient to present the elect spotless before God. The second main thrust lay in his conviction that the truths concerning Christ’s death can only be received by intellectual assent generated by the Spirit. 

     After Sandeman’s death, the English Baptist heretic, Andrew Fuller, began a sustained assault against Sandeman and his theology. Fuller insisted that the cross of Christ alone could not be the only condition which actualizes God’s pardon. There has to instead be something that man does to actualize the pardon. 

     Fuller started by renouncing imputation. That is, he insisted that the punishment for sin is non-transferrable. This means our guilt could not have been charged to Christ, because although an innocent person could take the physical punishment for a guilty man, the innocent man would nevertheless continue to remain innocent. This meant that Christ could not have borne His people’s guilt on the cross, because Christ could never have ceased to be innocent.

     Fuller concluded that Christ had only borne the effects of sin rather than the sin itself. In doing so, Christ’s death had been but merely a token sign to show the world that God had been angry with sin, while His resurrection stood as a token sign to show the world that God was now no longer angry with sin.

     God’s justice was irrelevant as far as Fuller was concerned. It wasn’t that the full penalty for breaking the law had to be paid, but rather it was that God needed a way to show His love and grace to the world. Fuller concluded from this that it is faith rather than the cross that actualizes God’s pardon. However, the faith he called faith could not simply be intellectual assent. It had to instead be mystical; a combination of heart and emotion, as well as outward moral improvement. 

     Eventually Fuller set Sandeman aside after he stumbled across John Gill. He made Gill the new subject of his criticism and slander, but the damage he did to Sandeman had been enough. The modern Calvinists fell in love with Fuller. Even today they continue in their adoration and admiration of Fuller. Just as it had been in Sandeman’s time, so it is again today that the modern Calvinists teach a false gospel in which the satisfaction of God’s justice is conditioned on some work of man. 

     Like today’s Calvinists, Fuller argued that if faith concerns only the mind then there is no way to distinguish genuine Christianity from fake Christianity, because a fake Christian can intellectually agree with the truths of Christianity just as much as the genuine Christian can. That is, because those truths do not grip the heart and re-orient the affections of the fake Christian, the fake Christian can be identified by his show of imperfect outward morality. 

     In 1967 Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones gave a keynote speech at an annual conference attended by reformed pastors and teachers and theology professors from all around the world. The subject of his conference concerned “The Dangers of Sandemanianism.” Jones and his guest speakers literally appealed to Fuller again and again throughout the conference. Most Calvinists still consider Jones a reliable source. 

     Today, Sandeman’s grave can be found in Danbury, Connecticut. The epitaph on his headstone reads: 

Here lies
until the resurrection
the Body of
A Native of Perth, North Britain
Who in the face of Continual Opposition
From all Sorts of Men
Long and boldly contended
for the Ancient Faith;
That the bare Work of Jesus Christ
Without a Deed, or Thought on the Part of Man,
Is sufficient to present
The chief of Sinners
Spotless before GOD:
To declare this blessed Truth
As testified in the Holy Scriptures,
He left his Country - he left his Friends,
And after much patient sufferings
Finished his Labours
2d April 1771
Aged 53 years