|Community of The Son of Man|
A postcard of The Agapemone, Spaxton, Somerset dating from 1907.
|Founder||Reverend Henry Prince|
|Headquarters||Spaxton, Somerset, England|
The Agapemonites or Community of The Son of Man was a Christian religious group or sect that existed in England from 1846 to 1956. It was named from the Greek: Agapemone meaning "Abode of Love". The Agapemone community was founded by the Reverend Henry Prince in Spaxton, Somerset. The sect also built a church in Upper Clapton, London, and briefly had bases in Stoke-by-Clare in Suffolk, Brighton and Weymouth.
The ideas of the community were based on the theories of various German religious mystics and its primary object was the spiritualization of the matrimonial state. The Church of England had dismissed Prince earlier in his career for his radical teachings. The Agapemonites predicted the imminent return of Jesus Christ. According to newspaper accounts Prince's successor, John Hugh Smyth-Pigott, declared himself Jesus Christ reincarnate.
The Agapemone community consisted mostly of wealthy, unmarried women. Both Prince and Smyth-Pigott took many spiritual brides. Later investigations have shown that these "brides" were not solely spiritual, and some produced illegitimate children. In 1860 Prince lost a lawsuit brought on behalf of Louisa Nottidge by the Nottidge family, and the group vanished from the public eye. It finally closed in 1956 when the last member, sister Ruth, died.
Henry James Prince
The Reverend Henry James Prince (1811–99) studied medicine at Guy's Hospital, obtained his qualifications in 1832 and was appointed medical officer to the General Hospital in Bath, his native city. Compelled by ill health to abandon his profession, he entered himself in 1837 as a student at St David's College, Lampeter (now the Lampeter campus of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David), where he gathered about him a band of earnest religious enthusiasts, known as the Lampeter Brethren. The vice principal of the college contacted the Bishop of Bath and Wells who, in 1846, installed Prince as the curate of Charlinch in Somerset, where he had sole charge during the illness and absence of the rector, the Reverend Samuel Starkey.
Attendances at the church were small until, during one of the services, Prince acted as if he was possessed, throwing himself around the church. Congregations grew each week as the "possession" was repeated. The congregation were then divided with separate services for men and women. Subsequently he separated them again into sinners and the righteous, which generally included females who were wealthy. The Bishop was summoned to investigate the practices. By that time Prince had contracted his first “spiritual marriage”, and had persuaded himself that he had been absorbed into the personality of God and had become a visible embodiment of the Holy Spirit. During his illness Starkey read one of his curate's sermons, and was not only “cured” forthwith, but embraced his strange doctrines. Together they procured many conversions in the countryside and the neighbouring towns. In the end the rector was deprived of his living and Prince was defrocked. Together with a few disciples they started the Charlinch Free Church, which had a very brief existence, meeting in a supportive farmer's barn.
Prince used money inherited on the death of his first wife, Martha, to marry Julia Starkey the sister of the rector. They all moved to Stoke-by-Clare in Suffolk where Prince started again to build up a congregation, which grew over the subsequent one to two years. The Bishop of Ely then expelled them. Prince opened Adullam Chapel, which was also known as Cave Adullam, in the North Laine area of Brighton. Meanwhile, Starkey established himself at Weymouth. Their chief success lay in the latter town, and Prince soon moved there.
A number of followers, estimated by Prince at 500, but by his critics at one fifth of the number, were got together, and it was given out by “Beloved” or “The Lamb” (the names by which the Agapemonites designated their leader) that his disciples must divest themselves of their possessions and throw them into the common stock. This was done, even by the poor, all of whom looked forward to the speedy end of the present dispensation, and were content, for the short remainder of this world, to live in common, and, while not repudiating earthly ties, to treat them as purely spiritual. With the money thus obtained the house at Spaxton that was to become the “Abode of Love” was enlarged and furnished luxuriously, and the three Nottidge sisters, who contributed £6,000 each, were immediately married to three of Prince's nearest disciples. Agnes, the eldest of the Nottidge sisters, objected to the spiritual marriage which entailed a celibate life and, as one writer reports, became pregnant by another member of the community; however, it is unlikely that she committed adultery because her husband never accused her, and she later gained sole custody of their child in 1850, after proving herself of good moral character before a court. Agnes wrote to her younger sister Louisa warning her not to come to Spaxton. Despite this Louisa travelled to Somerset to join them. Her mother Emily feared the spiritual and financial influence that Prince had established over her daughters. Emily instructed her son Edmund, her nephew Edward Nottidge, and her son-in-law, Frederick Ripley, to travel down to Somerset and to rescue her unmarried daughter, Louisa after her arrival. The three men succeeded in removing Louisa against her will in November 1846, and imprisoned her in 12 Woburn Place, a villa by Regents Park.
Following Louisa's persistent claims regarding the divinity of Henry Prince, her mother enlisted medical aid and had Louisa certified insane, and then placed her in Moorcroft House Asylum, Hillingdon. Her treatment and forced incarceration in the asylum has remained of interest with respect to the rights of psychiatric patients; Dr Arthur Stillwell, the presiding physician, made notes on Louisa's condition and treatment, recorded in The Lancet. Louisa escaped from the asylum in January 1848, travelling across London to meet the Reverend William Cobbe from The Agapemone at a hotel in Cavendish Square, but was recaptured two days later at Paddington railway station. Cobbe alerted the Commissioners in Lunacy, whose report by Bryan Procter led to her release in May 1848. Louisa then sued her brother, cousin and brother-in-law, Frederick Ripley, for abduction and false imprisonment in Nottidge v. Ripley and Another (1849); the trial was reported daily in The Times newspaper. In 1860 Louisa's brother, Ralph Nottidge, sued Prince to recoup the money that Louisa had given him as a result of his undue influence over her, in the case of Nottidge v. Prince (1860). The Nottidges won the case, with costs. After the cases were resolved Louisa Nottidge returned to Spaxton and spent the rest of her life as one of the Agapemonites.
In 1856, a few years after the establishment of the “Abode of Love”, Prince and Zoe Patterson, one of his virginal female followers, engaged in public ceremonial sexual intercourse on a billiard table in front of a large audience. The scandal led to the secession of some of his most faithful friends, who were unable any longer to endure what they regarded as the amazing mixture of blasphemy and immorality offered for their acceptance.
The most prominent of those who remained received such titles as the “Anointed Ones”, the “Angel of the Last Trumpet”, the “Seven Witnesses” and so forth.
Extensive building work was undertaken to accommodate members and followers at Four Forks in Spaxton, to which Prince and his followers moved in the summer of 1846. Behind 15 feet (4.6 m) high walls were built a 20-bedroom house and attached chapel, as well as a gazebo, stables, and cottages, all set within landscaped gardens. The buildings were designed by William Cobbe. The buttressed chapel, with its pinnacles and stained glass, was completed in 1845; today, together with the attached house, it is a Grade II listed building.
Prince died in 1899 aged 88. His followers buried Prince in the grounds of the chapel, with his coffin positioned vertically so that he would be standing on the day of his resurrection.
Since closure of the community, the chapel has been used as a studio for the production of children's television programmes, including Trumpton and Camberwick Green. The complex of buildings became known as Barford Gables and was put on the market in 1997. The chapel received planning permission for conversion into a residential house and was put on the market again in 2004.
Between 1892 and 1895 the Agapemonites built the Church of the Good Shepherd in Upper Clapton, London. It was designed by Joseph Morris in a Gothic style. Although it is fairly conventional in floor plan, the outside of the church is a riot of statuary and symbolism. The main doorways sport large carvings of angels and the four evangelists symbolised by a man, an eagle, a bull and a lion. The same four figures, cast in bronze, look out over the four quarters of the Earth from the base of the steeple. The two flanking weather vanes show a certain symbolic debt to William Blake's Jerusalem depicting, as they do, a fiery chariot and a sheaf of arrows (presumably of desire), while the main steeple is clearly surmounted by a spear. The stained glass windows, designed by noted children's book illustrator Walter Crane, and made by J S Sparrow, betray the unconventional nature of the sect as they illustrate the 'true station of womankind'. The church was abandoned after 1956 and now is used by the Georgian Orthodox Church.
John Hugh Smyth-Pigott
After Prince died in 1899 he was replaced by Reverend John Hugh Smyth-Pigott. Around 1890 Smyth-Pigott started leading meetings of the community again and recruited 50 young female followers to supplement the ageing population of Agapemonites. He took Ruth Anne Preece as his second wife and she had three children named Glory, Power and Hallelujah. By 1902 his fame had spread as far as India, from where Mirza Ghulam Ahmad warned him of his false teachings and predicted his miserable end.
The house which may have belonged to Smyth-Pigott in St John's Wood was visited by John Betjeman in his film Metro-land. It is built in the neo-gothic style. It is currently the home of the television presenter Vanessa Feltz and was previously the home of Charles Saatchi.
Books about the sect
In 2006 Smyth-Pigott's granddaughter, Kate Barlow, published an account of life as a child with her family in the sect. The book includes family photographs and details of conversations she had as a child with the then elderly sect members.
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