Remembering Bishop Sandford

Last night I gave a lecture to the Old Edinburgh Club on Daniel Sandford (1766-1830), Bishop of Edinburgh 1805-30. This article is my personal response to that history, which is that the name of Daniel Sandford deserves to be remembered, both by his Church of St John, and by the people of Edinburgh.

Daniel Sandford founded the only congregation in Britain, as far as I can tell, where it was possible to be passionate about the enlightenment, passionate about the gospel, and passionate about Scottish Episcopalianism, all at once. It was hugely popular: his congregation outgrew two buildings in twenty years.

Thanks to this unique theology, Sandford drew the tremendous wealth, talents influence of hundreds of Episcopalians in the New Town into participation in ‘Improvement’ – getting the Enlightenment out of theory and into practice, in the structure of Edinburgh society. Without him, the history of Edinburgh might have been very different. When he died, he was affectionately remembered:

‘By all who venerate wisdom, sanctity and virtue, let this stone be held for ever sacred. In memory of the Right Reverend Daniel Sandford D.D.  In the Scottish Episcopal Communion Bishop of Edinburgh, to record the gratitude of a church, which, to his piety, prudence and meekness, was mainly indebted for its union and prosperity, and of a congregation, which for thirty eight years, he led, by teaching and example, in the way of truth, peace and Godliness, this monumental tablet was erected by the vestry of the Chapel of St. John. Born July 1st 1766 Died January 14th 1830.’

Yet Sandford was forgotten.

He was a peacemaker, seeing good in apparently opposing traditions. He encouraged Evangelicals for their warm, lively faith; but he would not countenance their challenges to official doctrine. He championed distinctively Scottish Episcopal ideas, but he objected to Episcopalian introversion and mysticism: his religion was for everyone. As a result, he was condemned by both sides in the partisan world of eccesiastical history. He has never had a champion – until me!

Sandford was serious-minded and shy in company. So he missed out on the other route to fame taken by his assistants Sydney Smith and E.B. Ramsay, whose witty and frivolous anecdotes kept their books in print and their bon-mots repeated to this day.

Meanwhile, forgetting why he was important, his own church of St John’s carelessly lost him. His memorial in the sanctuary was removed to the baptistry in the 1880s when the sanctuary was enlarged. However, in the 1980s, the baptistry was converted into the church office, and Sandford’s memorial, with its touching epitaph, is now completely invisible.

From inside the church, the top of Sandford’s memorial is just visible in the alcove at the back, below the coat of arms

Sandford is buried just outside St John’s, alongside some of his family. Yet his own modest, white gravestone has weathered into illegiblity.

Sandford’s grave, hidden in a shady corner behind the showy Dean Ramsay Cross

Sandford also founded the Choir of St John’s which is reason enough for me to champion him. I sit in the choir each week staring at the memorial of his successor as Bishop, James Walker, far better known but (in my opinion) far less distinguished.

I’m not sure Sandford would have wanted a big statue or giant cross. But hope that, sometime, the vestry might bring their predecessors’ affecionate memorial tablet back down into the church, and remember the name of their gentle, influential founder.