John Stanford’s Religious Beliefs and Their Application at Newgate

Stanford and Newgate

John Stanford was appointed as the official chaplain of Newgate Prison in 1813 by the New York State Legislature, six years after his first visit in 1807.[i] As prison chaplain, Stanford preached at Newgate three times a week, and ministered to the sick and dying.[ii] Before his appointment, there had not been consistent religious instruction at Newgate since the ejection of Thomas Eddy in 1804.[iii] Inspectors offered him the job because hiring a chaplain seemed a cheaper way towards reform than separating prisoners by type of crime. By 1812, the prison was in chaos. The bureaucratic inspectors did not consider themselves qualified for religious instruction, and while they considered creating more solitary confinement to separate the bad influences from the rest of the prisoners, they were scared off by the cost. Hiring Stanford was a compromise.[iv]

The “Furnace of Affliction” and the Role of Chaplains

In his first sermon in his official capacity, Stanford revealed what he thought the role of Newgate was in salvation. Stanford preached that the penitentiary system was meant as a “furnace of affliction” for inmates.[v] This phrase comes from an Old Testament verse, Isaiah 48:10: “Behold, I have refined thee, but not with silver; I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction.” Stanford interpreted this verse to mean that conversion comes only through suffering and realizing one’s sins.[vi] Early American penitentiaries were, in Stanford’s view, much kinder institutions than the jails and corporal punishments imposed in European countries.[vii] Nevertheless, Stanford wrote in a pamphlet distributed for convicts’ instruction, “Directory on the Scriptures for Those under Confinement”, that being “bound in fetters” and “be holden in the cords of affliction” made prisoners more open to the word of God, and the chaplain emphasized in his sermons that prisoners deserved to suffer for breaking the law.[viii]

In his own words, Stanford thought it his “duty” to “warn…of the danger” caused by sin, especially the “horrible consequences of deism” and the “delusions of the Roman Catholic Church.”[ix] Stanford was not, however, focused on conversion to his own Particular Baptist sect. Stanford described himself as a “general lover”, by which he meant that when he preached in humanitarian and criminal institutions he preached general protestantism rather than his specific beliefs.[x] Stanford believed that one of his main duties as prison chaplain was to prepare sick and condemned prisoners for death, and bring them to repentance, so that they could go into the afterlife “a friend to God.”[xi] In his private writings, Stanford stated that he spent 15 years of his life working at Newgate because he believed in “the value and danger of the souls of sinners.”[xii] Stanford thought until the end that inmates suffering in the prison could bring inmates to the knowledge of the error of their ways.

Election, Particular Baptists, and the Need for Preachers


Figure 1: 16th century image of angels collecting the “elect.”

John Stanford was a Particular Baptist, part of a strain of Baptists who followed the Philadelphia Confession, a neo-Calvinist profession of belief in, among other concepts, the idea of election.[xiii] The prisoners at Newgate were aware of his leanings, as evidenced by Stanford’s private writings. In one case, Stanford wrote that a prisoner asked an “impertinent question,” asking how Stanford could teach them the importance of choice when he believed that those who were saved were selected beforehand by God. By his own account, Stanford responded to this query bluntly, stating that the inmate had not yet learned the “A, B, C of divinity” and comparing him to children, who are not taught “abstruse doctrines” until they have “learned their grammar.”[xiv]

Despite this inmate’s skepticism of election, Stanford’s beliefs actually underscored the necessity of preaching. The Particular Baptists shared a belief with the Puritans that those with a knowledge of the truth had an obligation to seek out those God had chosen to save.[xv] These sects preached that people who came to believe in the gospel would be saved, because their ability to believe showed that they were of the elect.[xvi] Stanford believed that inmates needed “guides” who understood the fullness of God’s grace and human sin, and he believed he was the appropriate person for that duty.[xvii]

One telling illustration of Stanford’s protestant Baptist faith is an encounter with Catholic convicts recounted in his journal. When a former “professor of religion” who was being held in the prison hospital asked Stanford whether Jesus was referring to St. Peter with the phrase “upon this rock I will build my church” Stanford replied vehemently in the negative.[xviii] Stanford said that the Lord could not mean Peter, because “in his self-confidence he more resembled a sandbank than a rock.”[xix] This is a key point of dispute between most protestant denominations and the Catholic church, as Catholics take this ambiguously worded scripture (Matthew 16:18) as an endorsement of Peter as the next leader of the church and therefore an endorsement of the Papal system. Protestants like Stanford, however, believe that Christ is referring to himself as “the rock eternal on which we build our hopes.”[xx]

Stanford’s Accounts of Prison Conversions


Figure 2: The hospital at Sing Sing Prison. Sing Sing was built about 30 years after Newgate.

In Charles G Sommers’ 1844 account of Stanford’s life, drawn from Stanford’s journals and letters, there are ten accounts of prisoners’ conversions. Many of the accounts of conversion follow a similar pattern. Stanford preached to those who were dying in the prison hospital, as he wished to bring them to a knowledge of their sin, so they could be saved.[xxi] From Stanford’s account, several men were converted through his efforts in the hospital, and were thus able to die peaceably. In the case of one dying young man, J.H., Stanford wrote that after the convict expressed some remorse, Stanford “endeavored to impress his mind with a sense of depravity and guilt”. The prisoner’s health was restored upon conversion in this, and the man gave thanks to God for salvation.[xxii] The chaplain claimed to have saved at least one other man in this manner. Stanford also saved the life of at least two prisoners by pleading for their pardon from the death penalty. Stanford was able to argue that sincere conversion had taken place, and while both prisoners were incarcerated for life, they died of natural causes.[xxiii]

The first prisoner-conversion case featured in Memoir of John Stanford, D.D. occurred in 1814, when Stanford befriended 20 year old convict whose initials are given as J.R. In Stanford’s journal, he described the young man as “hastening to the grave.” When Stanford visited him in the hospital, the convict explained that he came from “a good education”, but he now needed “some better knowledge” by which to know God. The convict also, according to Stanford, stated “If I could only say, Christ died for me….I should then be willing to quit this sinful world.” The chaplain then described to him how even the most “distant sinners” could be saved through “precious faith” granted by the Holy Spirit. The second time Stanford visited the convict, the young man informed Stanford that he was now “much relieved” and “looking to the Lord Jesus.” Stanford provided J.R. with farther instruction, including giving another convict a tract Stanford had previously printed to read to the sick man. After hearing the tract, J.R. told Stanford that “nothing could better have suited his case.”

When the convict died several days later, he informed Stanford that he was “quite composed” and “a happy man in Christ.” J.R. died with a psalm of praise as his last words, saying, “Oh death, where is thy sting? Oh grave, where is thy victory?…thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”[xxiv] This incident reinforced Stanford’s belief that a man should die “a friend to God”, and forms the pattern of the other hospital-set conversions cited throughout the Sommers’s Memoir.


Figure 3: An execution by hanging in 1865. This is the fate Stanford saved George Vanderpool from.

One other conversion account in particular shows how John Stanford’s beliefs affected Newgate prison policy: the story of George Vanderpool, a man he saved from the death penalty in 1815. Not only did Stanford write about Vanderpool in his journal, but he wrote multiple pamphlets citing him as the ideal prisoner convert. In Stanford’s eyes, Vanderpool was an example of how the penitentiary system should work, because his personal redemption was seen by the state and translated into a commutation of his sentence. God pardoned Vanderpool, and the state followed suit, illustrating what Stanford believed was the divine purpose of the penitentiary system. [xxv]


Figure 4: Governor Daniel D. Tompkins, who pardoned George Vanderpool.

Vanderpool, a white man, and his companion, Frazer, an African-American, were sentenced to the gallows for charges of arson. The prison chaplain was brought in to preach to them immediately after the sentencing, when Vanderpool and his companion were “imploring mercy from God.”[xxvi] Vanderpool informed Stanford that if God “would have mercy on [his] soul” he “would willingly die.” Over the course of the next week or so, Stanford visited Vanderpool as he apologized to his mother, a meeting he described as “too affecting for description”, and discussed with the convict at length various passages from the Bible to do with the saving of criminals.[xxvii] Frazer also informed Stanford that Vanderpool had not set the fire they were accused of.[xxviii] The day Vanderpool was supposed to be put to death, the Governor of New York issued a pardon, commuting his sentence to life imprisonment. In the account taken from his journal, Stanford wrote that this was the result of his “communicating to the Governor facts, which demonstrated the difference between the two culprits” and that saving Vanderpool’s life was something for which he would “always feel grateful to God.”[xxix] Stanford’s belief in Vanderpool’s sincere conversion saved the convict’s life.

Stanford’s Legacy and Impact

While Stanford did intervene on behalf of specific convicts, he believed it was not his place to set prison policy.[xxx] John Stanford trusted that in a democracy, the state knew best how to handle its citizens, and that while God saved through grace, the state had a right to punish wrongdoing.[xxxi] As corporal punishment in Newgate grew more severe over the course of his years as prison chaplain, however, he expressed some misgivings. Stanford believed that suffering was required for redemption, but he wrote in 1818 that a stint in the city jail hardened a woman’s heart.[xxxii] Despite this vague worry, Stanford never wrote negatively about corporal punishment, and he continued to preach salvation through suffering, a doctrine used to justify harsh treatment of prisoners, until the prison closed in 1828.[xxxiii]

-Julia Marostica

[i] Charles G. Sommers, Memoir of the Reverend John Stanford, D.D. (New York, Stanford and Swords: 1844): 163,, accessed October 19th, 2016;

Jennifer Graber, Furnace of Affliction: Prisons and Religion in Antebellum America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press Chapel Hill, 2011): 56, ProQuest Ebrary,, accessed October 19th, 2016

[ii] Sommers, 115-116

[iii] Graber, Furnace of Affliction, 54

[iv] Ibid., 54-55

[v] Jennifer Graber, “Engaging the Trope of Redemptive Suffering: Inmate Voices in the Antebellum Prison Debates”, Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, Vol. 79, No. 2 (Spring, 2012): 214, JSTOR, accessed November 20th, 2016

[vi] Graber, Furnace of Affliction, 54

[vii] Ibid., 59

[viii] Ibid., 56

[ix] Sommers, 181, 263

[x] Christopher Adamson, “God’s Continent Divided: Politics and Religion in Upper Canada and the Northern and Western United States, 1775 to 1841,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 36, No. 3 (July, 1994): 421, JSTOR, accessed October 12th, 2016

[xi] Sommers, 248-249

[xii] Ibid., 281

[xiii] Graber, Furnace of Affliction, 56

[xiv] Sommers, 159

[xv] Graber, Furnace of Affliction, 59

[xvi] Ibid., 59

[xvii] Ibid., 61

[xviii] Sommers, 224

[xix] Ibid., 224

[xx] Ibid., 225

[xxi] Ibid., 181

[xxii] Ibid., 137-139

[xxiii] Ibid., 235-240, 251

[xiv] Ibid., 117-118

[xxv] Graber, Furnace of Affliction,  60

[xxvi] Sommers, 235

[xxvii] Ibid, 236-237

[xviii] Ibid., 237

[xxix] Ibid., 238

[xxx] Graber, Furnace of Affliction, 71

[xxxi] Ibid., 71

[xxxii] Ibid., 67

[xxxiii] Ibid., 71


Figure 1: Hogenberg, Frans via Wikimedia Commons. Christ’s Prophecy of the End of the World. 1562. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Accessed November 28th, 2016.

Figure 2: Pach, Gustavus W. via The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. The Hospital. Sing Sing Prison. 19th century. New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 28th, 2016.

Figure 3: Gardner, Alexander via Wikimedia Commons. Execution of Henry Wirz. 1865. United States Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Division. Accessed November 28th, 2016.

Figure 4: Jarvis, John W. via Wikimedia Commons. Official Portrait of Daniel D. Tompkins. c. 1840. New York State Capitol Hall of Governors. Accessed November 28th, 2016.