Birks Sandemanian Chapel

We spent some time trying to find it. We attempted it last year, but were defeated. This summer, we had more either time or determination, and were reluctant to move on until we had its box properly ticked. We slowly drove around the single-track lanes between Sandford and Great Asby in Cumbria, eyes peeled. Using an old Ordnance Survey, we went up a farm track and stopped halfway. There it was. But for my companion’s great knowledge, I would have mistaken it for just another old barn standing in a field, for that is what it is. But it wasn’t always like that. It was once the Birks Sandemanian Chapel. If you are Scottish, you will know it better as Glasite, though neither is likely to ring bells with most. The Sandemanians were an eighteenth-century sect which lingered on until about forty years ago. This old barn was once one of their leading, English chapels. Like the movement as a whole, it has drifted into oblivion.

Kevin Price’s piece on Benjamin Ingham explains the denomination’s background and distinctiveness on our own website. I cannot add to that, but I am curious about one of their chief theological peculiarities: that mere mental assent was sufficient for salvation. So acknowledging the atoning death of Christ to be a fact was the same as being born-again. In an age when most reckoned themselves as Christian believers, this approach seems rather unhelpful. Christ’s saving work must be believed in the heart, not just in the head. It must be applied to one’s inner man, the heart. It is more than a recited times-table or Latin declension. Pure emotionalism is to be discouraged, and a reliance on human feeling instead of believing God’s word will only end in disappointment. Yet head knowledge is not enough. Nicodemus had knowledge, but he was urged to seek the new birth. The Pharisees knew much, but they were criticised by the Lord Jesus. The puritan writer, William Gurnall (died 1679) states:

Head knowledge of the things of Christ is not enough, this following Christ is primarily a matter of the heart. If your heart is not fixed in its purpose, your principles, as good as they may be, will hang loose and be of no more use in the heat of battle than an ill-strung bow. Half-hearted resolve will not venture much nor far for Christ.


He who has only a nodding acquaintance with the king may easily be persuaded to change his allegiance, or will at least try to remain neutral in the face of treason. Some professing Christians have only a passing acquaintance with the Gospel. They can hardly give an account of what they hope for, or whom they hope in. And if they have some principles they take kindly to, they are so unsettled that every wind blows them away, like loose tiles from a housetop.

Kevin Price quotes HM Pickles, in saying that Sandemanian reduced all ‘…to a cold, formal, unexercised profession of Calvinistic doctrine very different to its former lively, experimental character’. Charles Wesley’s hymn Let Earth and Heaven Agree could have been written to counter this relegation of salvation to mere intellect, its fifth verse declaring:

Stung by the scorpion sin,

My poor expiring soul

The balmy sound drinks in,

And is at once more made whole;

See there my Lord upon the tree!

I hear, I feel, He died for me.

Although the Sandemanians had more distinctives than this (they were known for their congregational love feasts, for example), their dry understanding of gospel acceptance was bound to wither on the tree. That old barn now hears no gospel truth echo on its walls. Only the pigeons find comfort in its shade, defecating on its floors and beams. Believing the gospel is more than merely reciting it or explaining it. It is applying it and living by it. Such a one is like the old chapel: it has a roof, but there is nothing underneath.