1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Agapemonites

AGAPEMONITES, or Community of the Son of Man. This sect, based upon the theories of various German religious mystics, and having for its primary object the spiritualization of the matrimonial state, was founded in 1846 by the Rev. Henry James Prince, a clergyman of the Church of England (1811-1899). He studied medicine, 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 Theological College, Lampeter, where he gathered about him a band of earnest religious enthusiasts, known as the Lampeter Brethren, and was eventually ordained to the curacy of Charlinch in Somerset, where he had sole charge in the illness and absence of the rector, the Rev. Samuel Starkey. By that time he 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 Mr. Starkey read one of his curate’s sermons; and was not only “cured” forthwith, but embraced his strange doctrines, and together they procured many conversions in the countryside and the neighbouring towns. In the end the rector was deprived of his living and Prince’s licence withdrawn, and together, with a few disciples they started the Charlinch Free Church, which had a very brief existence. Prince shortly afterwards became curate of Stoke in Suffolk, where, however, the character of his revivalist zeal caused his departure at the end of twelve months. It was now decided that Prince, Starkey (whose sister Prince had married as his second wife) and the Rev. Lewis Prince should leave the Church of England and preach their own gospel; Prince opened Adullam Chapel, Brighton, and Starkey established himself at Weymouth. The chief success lay in the latter town, and thither Prince soon migrated. 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 or ill-furnished, 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, which was to become the “Abode of Love,” was enlarged and furnished luxuriously, and three sisters, who contributed £6000 each, were immediately married to three of Prince’s nearest disciples. Despite the purely spiritual ideas which underlay the Agapemonite view of marriage, a son was born to one of these couples, and when the father endeavoured to carry it away an action was brought which resulted in the affirmation of the mother’s right to its custody. The circumstance in which a fourth sister who joined the community was abducted by her brothers led to an inquiry in lunacy and to her final settlement at Spaxton. A few years after the establishment of the “Abode of Love,” a peculiarly gross scandal, in which Prince and one of his female followers were involved, 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. In 1862 “Brother Prince” sent “to the kings and people of the earth” letters “making known to all men that flesh is saved from death.” At that period the Agapemonites counted their adherents at 600, and it was no doubt a grievous shock to them when their deathless founder died on the 8th of March 1899, four years after he had opened a branch church at Clapton, London, which is said to have cost £20,000. This church, decorated with elaborate symbolism, was styled the “Ark of the Covenant,” and in it the elect were to await the coming of the Lord.

On the death of “Brother” Prince, the Rev. T. H. Smyth-Pigott, pastor of the “Ark,” became the acknowledged head of the sect. He was born in 1852, of an old Somersetshire county family, and, after a varied career as university man, sailor before the mast, soldier, coffee-planter, curate in the Church of England and evangelist in the Salvation Army, was converted about 1897 to the views of Prince. For five years after this he was not heard of outside his own sect. On the 7th of September 1902, however, the congregation, assembled at the Ark of the Covenant for service, found the communion table replaced by a chair. In this Pigott presently seated himself and proclaimed himself as the Messiah with the words, “God is no longer there,” pointing upwards, “but here,” pointing to himself. This astonishing announcement was followed by an excellent sermon on Christian love. Pigott’s claim was at once admitted by the members of his sect, including even his own wife, as the fulfilment of the promise of Christ to appear in due time in the “Ark.” By the outside world the affair was greeted with mingled ridicule and indignation, and the new Messiah had to be protected by the police from the violence of an angry mob. After providing “copy” for the newspapers for a few days, however, the whole thing was forgotten. Pigott retired to the headquarters of the sect, the “Abode of Love” in Somerset, and all efforts to interview him or to obtain details of the life of the community were abortive. At last, in August 1905, the long and mysterious silence was broken by the announcement that a son had been born to Pigott by his “spiritual wife,” Miss Ruth Preece, an inmate of the Agapemone. This event by no means disconcerted the believers, who saw in it only another manifestation of Pigott’s divinity, and proclaimed it as “an earnest of the total redemption of man.” The child was registered as “Glory,” and, at the christening service in the chapel of the Abode, hymns were sung in its honour as it lay in a jewelled cradle in the chancel. Another child by Miss Preece, christened “Power,” was born on the 20th of August 1908. The publicity given to this event renewed the scandal, and in November an attempt to “tar and feather” Mr Pigott resulted in two men being sent to prison. Later in the month proceedings were instituted against him by the bishop of Bath and Wells under the Clergy Discipline Act.

One outcome of the disclosures connected with the Agapemone deserves passing mention, as throwing some light on the origin of the wealth of the community. Mr Charles Stokes Read, a resident at the Agapemone and director of the V. V. Bread Company, was requested by his fellow-directors to resign, on the ground that his connexion with the sect was damaging the business of the company. He denied this to be the case and refused to resign, pleading religious liberty and the large interests of Agapemonites in the concern. On the 13th of September 1905, a meeting of the shareholders of the company was held, and Read “asked them to believe that it was not in the interests of the company, but because he knew that the Lord Jesus Christ had come again and was now dwelling at the Agapemone, that he was thus cast out by his colleagues.” The motion calling on him to resign was carried on a poll being taken by 46,770 votes to 2953. (See The Times, 14th of September 1905.)