John Stanford’s Life and Philanthropic Pursuits


Figure 1: Rev John Stanford, D.D.

The Memoir of The Reverend John Stanford D. D., the biography of John Stanford written in 1844 by Charles G. Sommers, considers the life of the man who was official chaplain of Newgate Prison from 1813-1828 through his diaries and letters.

Formative Years

Born in England on October 20, 1754, Stanford wrote his first sermon at the age of sixteen. [i] By eighteen, he had converted from the Anglican Church to the Baptist tradition, largely because he became disenchanted with the concept of infant baptism as a result of his personal study of the New Testament. When Stanford wrote of this moment, he reasoned that despite his “most affectionate attachment” to the “pious and learned ministers” of the Church of England, he remembered learning as a child that “’what is that to thee, follow thou me’” was the proper attitude towards the Son of God.[ii] Stanford was ordained to his ministry nine years later, in 1781, and moved to New York City at the age of 32, in 1786, where he lived until his death of old age in 1834. [iii]

New York Society


Figure 2: Mrs Isabella Graham, prominent New York philanthropist

Stanford became one of the most respected philanthropists in New York society at the turn of the nineteenth century. In the years following the Revolutionary War, New Yorkers were concerned with the idea of being good citizens, and worried about the evil influence of cities.[iv] Wealthy city-dwellers formed private societies to try to combat the ills of urbanization.[v] Most of these societies were founded by a small number of individuals trying to fight many evils at once. Thomas Eddy, John Murray, Jr., John Pintard, and the wealthy widow Mrs Isabella Graham each founded at least three such societies.[vi] The high-class men and women who joined such endeavors did so for a variety of reasons, including prestige, influence, republican ideals, and religious devotion.[vii]

John Stanford fell in the latter category, and helped to found a society for the deaf and dumb, played a key advising role in the creation of the Refuge for Juvenile Delinquents, and preached at the reform institutions springing up all over the city, including Newgate Penitentiary, the Almshouse, a Magdalene shelter, the City Hospital, and the Asylum.[viii] The philanthropic societies of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were in need of ministers, because the philanthropists of the time believed poverty and societal ills sprang from sin. This sin was mainly attributed to a combination of lack of education and irresponsible parents. Therefore, the two part solution was to first remove sinners’ haunts such as pubs and racetracks, and then to go about re-educating the poor and depraved in religious devotion and good habits.[ix]


Figure 3: New York House of Refuge, 1832. John Stanford advocated for its creation.

Preaching Habits

Stanford began offering sermons at the city institutions soon after he arrived in New York from England, though his role as the first and only Chaplain of Newgate was formalized by the City Council in 1812. He served as the Chaplain of Newgate until the prison closed in the early summer of 1828.[x] Stanford was paid a $500 per year stipend by the prison, but claimed to make little other money through his efforts–“the Society for the Support of the Gospel among the Poor in the City of New York” owed Stanford $800 when he died.[xi]

Throughout his career as a preacher for various philanthropic enterprises and civic institutions, Stanford preached about 497 sermons per year, by his own account–though his record came in 1820, when he preached 620 sermons in a year period, for an average of 11.5 sermons a week.[xii] Stanford sometimes preached as many as six sermons in one day.[xiii] Stanford kept meticulous track of his schedule in his journal, recording a yearly sermon count at the end of each calendar year. In 1813, a year in which he preached 547 sermons, his weekly sermon schedule was as follows[xiv]:

Tuesday preach a sermon at the Asylum; visit dying City-Hospital patients
Wednesday visit the Orphan-Asylum for preaching and inspection; go from there to Newgate to preach (twice), visit sick prisoners, and help with school lessons
Thursday preach at both the Debtor’s Prison and Bridewell (a jail for petty thieves)
Friday preach in two city hospitals; preach at the penitentiary and give exams in the convicts’ school; preach at the Asylum; inspect two poor-house schools
Sunday preach twice at the City Hospital; preach at the Penitentiary twice and visit the ill prisoners

He kept a similar schedule until Newgate closed in 1828.


Perhaps because of his extreme zeal for spreading the gospel, Stanford was highly regarded by influential members of society. He was asked by the New York legislature to visit other penitentiaries in order to brainstorm improvements for Newgate, and he had a friendly correspondence with Governor Clinton of New Jersey, who signed letters to Stanford with the title “Your Devoted Friend”.[xv] Stanford once had important Wall-Street businessman once tricked him into accepting a new suit as a gift. He wrote in a thank-you letter that “those who are unthankful are unholy”, and gave his “affectionate thanks” for such a “valuable and generous donation”.[xvi] Stanford was offered paid positions by wealthy congregations multiple times throughout his ministerial career, but he never accepted the offer, preferring to show others “the value and the danger of the souls of sinners,” as he wrote towards the end of his life.[xvii]

Philanthropic Drive

Stanford’s philanthropic drive came out of his sincerely held religious beliefs, according to reports and his journal. Stanford once wrote a “prescription” for a man with a spiritual worry that consisted of knowing that God would forgive him, accepting God’s will, and acknowledging that what God wanted would be best for him.[xviii] In another letter, Stanford wrote to a family whose grandson had recently been arrested that they should not fully cut off their heir, because Jesus said “I was sick, and in prison and ye visited me.”[xix] Stanford wrote and preached that daily communication with God was “paramount” to salvation. For Stanford, personal faith was more important than any kind of learning, and prayer was the basis of that faith.[xx] Stanford believed that only a man who was “a friend of God” could face death head-on.[xxi]  A staunch protestant, Stanford was proud to have converted one prisoner away from “the delusions of the Roman Catholic Church,” and he believed it was his duty to warn the dying of their imminent damnation. [xxii] Stanford’s Particular Baptist Christianity was compassionate and personal, but exacting in some regards.



Figure 4: Union College in 1804. The college awarded John Stanford an Honorary Doctorate.

When John Stanford died in January 14th, 1831, he had been a minister to the indigent and marginalized all over the city. [xxiii] He had also started a school for the deaf and mute in 1807, been granted membership into the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, and advocated for a naval academy for boys that would be open to juvenile delinquents.[xxiv] Two and a half years prior to his death, Stanford was awarded a Doctorate in Divinity from Union College, even though he had given up academia for full-time preaching in 1812.[xxv]

Near the end of his life, Stanford wrote about his calling to help the helpless as a gift from God, a “memorial to the Lord’s goodness.”[xxvi] Charles G. Sommers, a Baptist minister himself, was hired by Stanford’s son, Thomas N. Stanford to gather the vast numbers of written documents from Stanford’s life into a book shortly after Stanford’s death. Stanford was the chief minister at Newgate for 16 years of the 32 years it was open, fully half of its lifespan as a penitentiary. As a chaplain to some of the earliest incarcerated convicts, he was an important influence on the prison system.

-Julia Marostica


[i] Charles G. Sommers, Memoir of the Reverend John Stanford, D.D. (New York, Stanford and Swords: 1844): 2, 24,, accessed October 19th, 2016

[ii] Ibid., 29-30

[iii] Ibid., 31, 39

[iv] M.J. Heale, “Humanitarianism in the Early Republic: the Moral Reformers of New York, 1776-1825”, Journal of American Studies, Vol. 2., No. 2 (October, 1968): 161, JSTOR, accessed November 16th, 2016

[v] Ibid., 161-162

[vi] Ibid., 164

[vii] Ibid., 166

[viii] Sommers, 114

[ix] Heale, 166

[x] Sommers, 163

[xi] Ibid., 154

[xii] Ibid., 240

[xiii] Ibid., 234

[xiv] Ibid., 115-116

[xv] Ibid., 141-142; 105-110, 224

[xvi] Ibid., 145-148

[xvii] Ibid., 116, 281

[xviii] Ibid., 143

[xix] Ibid., 192

[xx] Ibid., 321

[xxi] Ibid., 248-249

[xxii] Ibid., 231

[xxiii] Ibid., 314

[xxiv] Ibid., 292, 255-256

[xxv] Ibid., 292, 165

[xvi] Ibid., 261


Figure 1: Inman, Henry via The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. Revd. John Stanford, D.D. 1834. New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 28th, 2016.

Figure 2: Graham, Isabella via Wikimedia Commons. Isabella Graham. 19th century. Accessed November 28th, 2016.

Figure 3: Hayward, George via Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. N.Y. House Of Refuge, 1832. New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 28th, 2016.

Figure 4: Unknown via Wikimedia Commons. Union College in 1804. Accessed November 28th, 2016.