The “Old Spirit of Blind Sammy Hancock:” Meeting a Colorful Early Adventist Preacher

As I did research for a chapter on Ellen White and the Indiana “holy flesh movement” for the book En Espíritu y en Verdad (Pacific Press, 2013) I came across a statement in a letter from Hattie Haskell to Ellen White (1900) about one “blind Sammy Hancock.” Since I had never heard about him, I decided to take a detour from my main subject and find out who he was. I was able to dig up several relevant details in the Adventist Archives of the Review and Herald going back to 1864. Also, thanks to Google Books, I was able to find a book of biographies of residents of Bristol, CT where he lived until his death; it contains the one and only photograph of this intriguing early Adventist.

The “Blind Preacher”

Samuel Cooley Hancock was born in East Hartford on September 16, 1828. He became partially blind at four weeks old. By attending a school for the blind, Hancock became proficient in music­. He later became the organist at the Meriden, CT Methodist Episcopal church. At the age of twenty-three, Hancock contracted smallpox, which led to complete loss of sight. He remained a Methodist-Episcopalian until he accepted the Sabbath in the 1840s.[1]He married Susan Sims and had one daughter who died in 1862. Until his death in 1874 he was known as the “blind preacher.”

Reports from those times are sketchy at best. According to one author, Hancock met up with Ellen White in the late 1840s[2]. This meeting may have been at the first Sabbath Conference held in Rocky Hill, CT on April 20, 1848. Hancock apparently became an Adventist preacher about 1854[3] in the wake of the “1854 movement,” an attempt to revive Miller’s time setting.[4] Besides being a preacher, he was also a singer and composer; the melody of Hymn 963 in the Adventist hymnal Hymns and Tunes (1888) “Resurrection” and Uriah Smith’s “Passed Away from Earth” (#964) was composed by Hancock and used in other hymnals of the time.[5]

But Hancock’s career as Adventism’s “blind preacher” and singing evangelist was quite controversial. Although he started out “with the body,” Hancock was now notorious for his “Spirit operations” described by Review and Herald readers as “talking in tongues,”[6] “swimming in the Spirit and dancing in the Spirit.”[7] Although not naming names, Ellen White most likely describes Hancock’s leadership in the 1854 movement as “a noisy, rough, careless, excitable spirit. Noise was considered by many the essential of true religion, and there was a tendency to bring all down upon a low level.”[8] These exercises were promoted by “wandering stars professing to be ministers” as “gibberish,” “unintelligible sounds” and “strange manifestations” stirred by “wild, and excitable feelings”[9]; “some would dance up and down, singing, “Glory, glory, glory, glory, glory.”[10] These antics may also have included what she described as creeping on the floor as a sign of having become like children.[11]

Liaison with Gilbert Cranmer

By August 1864, Hancock joined a Sabbatarian offshoot led by Gilbert Cranmer, a former Millerite from Battle Creek who had been convinced about the Sabbath by Joseph Bates in August 1852.[12]But as early as 1858 Joseph Bates and Uriah Smith were warning churches through the Review and Herald that Cranmer held “views contrary to the present truth [rejection of Ellen White], and grieving the brethren by his disorderly walk.”[13]Apparently Cranmer’s “disorderly walk” included a temporary addiction to chewing tobacco (he apparently abandoned the practice and lived to the ripe old age of eighty-nine).[14] In December 1857, Cranmer had received a testimony by Ellen White on his use of tobacco, which he initially accepted but later rejected. When James White refused to give him a preaching license, he went on to make anti-White views the flagship emphasis of his preaching to Adventists. Like others at the time, his rejection of Ellen White’s visions stemmed primarily from the “shut door” doctrine.[15]

By 1860, Cranmer had started amassing followers and formed several congregations in Michigan. These would later be organized as the “Church of God (Seventh Day)” (a denomination that boasts 300,000 members today) and Hancock became a leader of the movement in New England.[16]  Cranmer would later revive the defunct anti-White pamphlet Messenger of Truth as The Hope of Israel (1863).[17]

The “Hancock and Cranmer” party as it was known was wreaking havoc in Adventist communities in New England in the early 1860s with their peculiar views and rejection of the testimonies. Some of the doctrines being introduced amongst were the age to come doctrine and the “non-resurrection of the wicked” according to Ellen White.[18] Hancock was also advocating the adoption of the “American Costume” among Adventists, something Ellen White frowned upon, and calling the church of the “White party” as “Babylon.”[19]

The confusion we see at this point is not at all surprising; the Advent movement was a somewhat loose band of believers who often fell prey to itinerant preachers such as Hancock. Even after the organization of the SDA Church in 1863, the Adventist leadership struggled for some time to extricate congregations from the grip of Hancock and Cranmer.[20] Cranmer’s influence reached from Maine all the way to Iowa. By 1864, the Review was mounting a steady campaign against them. The editors seemed eager to publish letters from readers detailing problems with their teaching. In a report of their work in New England in late 1863 in the Review and Herald, James White writes:

There is a class in the East that nothing can be done with at present, only to let them alone. We refer to Hancock and company. This man gets sympathy in his fanatical course on account of his being blind. It is right to sympathize with the afflicted, because of their afflictions; but it is madness to accept, as a leader to the kingdom of God, through sympathy alone, a man that is twice blind. The best way-to dry up the influence of fanatics is to let them alone, but actively visit the scattered friends of the cause, and set things in order with them.[21]

The fact that Hancock was “getting sympathy” from the brethren because he was  blind may also indicate that he was part of the “no-work” party,[22] a group of former Millerites who refused to work because they lived on a “spiritual Sabbath.” Hancock labored for months at a time in one place which no doubt led to financial dependence on the brethren.

The tug-of-war between the Hancock-Cranmer party in New England and Michigan and the now officially organized Seventh-day Adventist Church can be seen in James White’s report about the work in Maine in March 1865:

Our friends in the East who are coming into the ranks, heartsick of the administration of S. C. Hancock, deserve the sympathy or the body. They had been left as sheep without a shepherd. They were under the more direct influence of the loose and reckless spirit that attended, more or less, the movement of 1854, and which exists, to a great extent, among New England Adventists.[23]

But Hancock’s incursions in Adventist communities in New England quickly turned sour. In the March 7, 1865 issue of the Review, Merritt E. Cornell, a former aspiring church organizer himself who was sent by the church to counteract Hancock’s efforts, reports rather triumphantly that the meeting of the “Hancock and Cranmer party” in February of that year in North Berwick, Maine had not attracted a “single soul” (probably an exaggeration). By 1866, Cranmer’s The Hope of Israel met its demise and their impact on Advent communities in New England all but vanished.

The Push For Organization

I suspect the now infamous Israel Dammon episode of 1845 in which Ellen and James White were deeply involved, followed by the fanaticism of F. T. Howland also in New England[24] (a “no-work” subscriber), the fanaticism in Wisconsin and Hancock and Cranmer’s throughout the 1850s and early 1860s played an important role in the Adventist approach to organization and sense of identity. Maybe these movements were an unintended result of the acceptance of the ministry of Ellen White as the sole manifestation of “Spirit of prophecy” by early Adventists. Perhaps feeling left out, these aggressive preachers reacted by showing an entitlement to their share of the Spirit. F. T. Howland for example ended up convincing some that he was the Holy Spirit. As a contemporary author recalled this story: “There is no claim so absurd that will not find acceptance…”[25]

This barrage of shady preachers and questionable views of theology and worship styles was evidence that organization was a necessity. By the time the Whites, Bates and others had dealt with a few of those free spirits, they were ready to push the Advent movement towards becoming a monolithic institution. By organizing early, the pioneers hoped to stamp out the influence of these unsavory characters from the flock.

Or so they thought.

The Indiana Debacle of 1900

By 1899, Hancock’s gyrations in the Spirit and noisy meetings were being picked up by a small group of Adventists in the farmlands of Indiana impressed by A. T. Jones’ “receive ye the Holy Ghost” movement. Led by a group of overzealous pastors concerned about the lukewarm spiritual experience of the churches in Indiana, some developed a rowdy worship style, where people would sing and shout, going around in circles incessantly until some would pass out. This would be the proof they had received the Spirit.

The Indiana campmeetings of 1900 where instrumental music was introduced for the first time in Adventist campmeetings accompanied by loud shouting were the final straw for Stephen Haskell and his wife who considered the music (including an infamous bass drum) as being part of the “deception.” In a P.S. of her letter to Ellen White, Hattie Haskell writes that her husband Stephen had compared the excitement and the recalcitrance they had encountered at the campmeeting in Muncie, IN as “the old spirit of blind Sammy Handcock [sic]”[26] although she herself does not know what this refers to. It is possible that Hancock mixed emotional worship and music to further his fanatical views - hence the comparison.

With Ellen White’s opposition to perfectionism and fanaticism at the historical General Conference of 1901, the Indiana movement petered out.

Speaking in Tongues Returns

While the rowdy “exercises” of the 1840s-1860s ended with Indiana, Hancock’s “gift of tongues” came back to haunt the Adventist movement in 1908 in the experience of the Mackins, a couple from Ohio who had some manifestations at the campmeeting in Mansfied, OH. This would also be the main thrust of the Adventist Church of the Promise, an Adventist Pentecostal offshoot founded in Brazil in 1932 with more than 1,000 churches and 76,000 members worldwide.

Conclusion

As we celebrate the 150th year of our church’s organization, Hancock’s meteoric trajectory in our midst may illuminate our early struggle to organize, as well as our continued fight to protect “present truth.”

No doubt the SDA church is far away from those bumpy initial years where everyone “did what was right in his own eyes.” Times have changed. . . or have they? The problem is that instead of ostracizing fringe preachers as we did before, we now welcome some of them. Today there is a symbiotic relationship between independent ministries (some with questionable views) and mainstream Adventism. What was considered “fringe” at one point is now passed on as “historical Adventism.” Nowadays, the absence of strange “exercises” or “disorderly conduct” by independent Adventist preachers has given rise to a more complex phenomenon: it has become more difficult for the regular church members to detect when certain theologies are “contrary to present truth.”

In their current crusade against what they perceive as the “secularization” of Adventism, many of these itinerant preachers have developed fanaticism and restorationism (a return to an “ideal” past reality) cloaked in “revival and reformation.” According to some, the use of drums in church is a fulfilment of the “prophecy of Indiana” because, so they say, drums would trigger the “omega apostasy.”[27] They don’t seem to realize that the same perfectionism and striving for “holy flesh” that plagued some Indiana congregations in 1900 will not “come back" - these trends never really left us. They are alive and well, mostly devoid of ecstasy and contortions, rather accompanied by the sound “good” music and flanked by particular “compilations” and prooftexts. Today, obscurantism and fanaticism are expressed in a more subdued, dignified and “spiritual” demeanor, which hides a critical spirit ready to reject anything that does not fit their own views of the “real” Adventist identity. (One such current independent ministry has compared contemporary Adventist worship styles and music to “worshipping at the throne of Satan”).

The discrepancy between mainstream Adventism and what I call “radical restorationism” is not just a difference in method, but rather a fundamental difference in how one sees the kingdom of God. Like Hancock did, some aspects of mainstream Adventism continue to be surreptitiously called “Babylon.” For some in this segment, the fewer people join, the better. Those who do join are considered the real “remnant.” the only ones who could endure the weight of “sound doctrine.” Consequently, the fewer people there are in church, the more “remnant” it is. The more people who join the church, the longer it takes for the Second Coming because all those people have to “catch up” to sinless perfection. Evangelistic crusades are planned to find only the very last remaining ones out there, those who can endure, sometimes right on the first night (!), the full weight of Adventist apocalypticism. Matthew 24:14 has been turned on its head and now reads: “And the end of the world will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the Gospel will come.”

 Unless we shift our evangelistic focus, traditional Adventist preaching will continue to enlist people who come to church for the wrong reasons, attracted by questionable views on eschatology, salvation, lifestyle, the gifts of the Spirit and Christian worship.

André Reis has degrees in theology and music and is finishing a Ph.D. in New Testament at Avondale College. He contributed two chapters to En Espíritu y en Verdad, a book on music and worship recently published by Pacific Press.


References:

[1] Cf. John Kiesz, “History of the Church of God (Seventh Day)” (Unpublished paper, Stanberry, MO, May 1965), 2.

[2]Milo Leon Norton, “The Bradleytes” in Bristol, Connecticut, Eddy N. Smith, George Benton Smith and Allena J. Dates, eds. (Hartford, CT: City Printing Company, 1907), p. 540.

[3]Ibid., 453.

[4]The 1854 movement was lead by Jonathan Cummings (1817-1894) who reviewed Miller’s predictions of the Second Coming to 1854.

[5]Cf.  Alexander Streeter Arnold, ed, New Hymns of Joy (Valley Falls, RI: 1885).

[6]Mrs. D. A. Parker, “And Still they Come,” Review and Herald, March 14, 1865, p. 116-7.

[7]S. B. Gowell, “My Experience,” Review and Herald, Jan 17, 1865, pp. 61-2; Cf. Review and Herald, Sep 9, 1858.

[8]“The Cause in the East,” Testimonies, vol. 1, pp. 409-422.

[9]Testimonies, vol. 1, pp. 418-419. Speaking in tongues returned in 1908 in the activities of the Mackins (Cf. Letter 338 from Ellen White to S. N. Haskell, 26 November 1908).

[10]Selected Messages, vol. 3, p. 372.

[11]Life Sketches, 86.

[12]Cf. the report by Bates that Cranmer beat him to congregations in Michigan preaching the Sabbath in the Review and Herald, Jan 26, 1860, p. 77.

[13]Joseph Bates, Uriah Smith, “Business Proceeding of the Conference of May 21st, 1858,” Review and Herald, May 27, 1858.

[14]Review and Herald, Jan 17, 1865; cf. Jan 31, 1865.

[15]Cf. Robert Coulter, The Story of the Church of God (Seventh Day) by, (Denver, CO: Bible Advocate Press, 1983), 12-13.

[16]Cf. Cf. John Kiesz, “History of the Church of God (Seventh Day)” (Unpublished paper, Stanberry, MO, May 1965).

[17]Cf. John Loughborough, The Rise and Progress of the Advent MovementBattle Creek, MI: General Conference of SDAs, 1892), 217.

[18]Testimonies, vol. 1, 411.

[19]S. B. Gowell, ibid.

[20]Review and Herald, March 7, 1865.

[21]Review and Herald, Feb 2, 1864.

[22]Cf. Norma J. Collins, Heartwarming Stories of the Pioneers (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2005), pp. 89, 151.

[23]Review and Herald, March 14, 1865, p. 116.

[24]Cf. Review and Herald, Nov 25, 1852. Ellen White also had her run-ins with as well Howland, cf. Spiritual Gifts, vol. 2, p. 116.

[25]Milo Leo Norton, ibid., p. 541.

[26]Hattie Haskell to Ellen White, September 10, 1900.

[27]See the article by Joaquim Azevedo (PhD, Andrews University) http://musicaeadoracao.com.br/20200/louvor-adoracao-e-espiritualidade-omega-da-apostasia-parte-1/

The "Old Spirit of Blind Sammy Hancock" Meeting a Colorful Early Adventist Preacher by André Reis

Because the mission of Spectrum Magazine is community through conversation, we invite participation of all readers in a respectful manner. To comment on the Spectrum Magazine website, one must register with a verifiable identity (email, twitter, facebook) and agree to the following Spectrum Magazine commenters covenant.


Current Issue

Not yet a subscriber? Subscribe today!

Support Spectrum

Thank you for making your generous gift. Your donation will help independent Adventist journalism expand across the globe.

DONATE NOW!

Newsletter

Ads

Organizations

Sat, 09/13/2014 | San Diego Adventist Forum
Terrie Dopp Aamodt, PhD

Connect with Spectrum