Dec 2, 2016

Descendants of 'sex-obsessed' leader of Victorian cult that scandalised society lose claim for £1m

John Hugh Smyth-Pigott, a 'sex-obsessed' former Church of England clergyman who declared himself the 'new messiah' of the sect
Danny Boyle
DECEMBER 1, 2016

Sordid claims about a free-love Victorian cult have been analysed by a High Court judge as he ruled that the granddaughters of the sect's former leader will not see any of the £1million they claimed as their birthright.

The "very middle class" Agapemonite messianic movement scandalised 19th and early 20th century society after being established in 1846.

Named after the Greek word meaning "Abode of Love", it was described as the prototype of modern-day cults, complete with sex scandals, accusations of brainwashing, dramatic rescues of members by their families, moral outrage from respectable society and condemnation in the popular press.

John Hugh Smyth-Piggot, a "sex-obsessed" former Church of England clergyman, declared himself the "new messiah" of the sect in 1902 following the death of its founder, Henry Prince.

As "heavenly bridegroom", detractors claimed he had enjoyed a harem of dozens of "soul brides" eager for his favour. His declaration as Godhead, claiming he was the " essential being of God", caused riotous scenes in London, with Smyth-Piggott having to be removed from the capital under armed guard.

Smyth-Piggot has since been described as "if not a sexual maniac, at least a man obsessed with sex in his daily life".

Despite his claim to immortality, Smyth-Piggot - who was known to his followers simply as "Beloved" - died in 1927 and the cult faded into obscurity and folded in 1956. But left behind was about £1 million from the sale of the cult's last place of worship - the Church of the Arc of the Covenant, in Clapton, East London.

His great-granddaughter spearheaded a legal bid by his six granddaughters to come into the money they saw as rightfully theirs. But now Judge Andrew Simmonds QC has sent them away empty handed, ruling that the money must go to charity.

He said it was not his role to pass moral judgment on the Agapemonites, adding that his decision that the cult was a charity "reflects the long tradition of religious tolerance in this country".

The Charity Commission will now distribute the money among other good causes which, in their view, most closely resemble the Agapemonites.

The Agapemonite movement was founded by Prince, a defrocked clergyman, who set up a base in the quiet Somerset village of Spaxton, using money gleaned by urging his followers - mostly wealthy, unmarried women - to hand over all their worldly goods to build "The Abode of Love".

The result was a collection of houses and cottages with its own chapel surrounded by a 12ft wall and guarded by dogs. The cult later expanded and founded other centres, including the Church of the Arc of the Covenant, complete with stained glass windows depicting the submission of womankind to man.

It was there that Smyth-Piggot declared himself to be the "second coming of Christ" in September 1902, before a 6,000 strong crowd. Contemporary reports detail how, while his followers abased themselves, many of the crowd reacted so angrily to his claim that he was run out of town under police escort and afterwards retreated to the sect's Somerset base.

The church was sold in 2010 and uncertainty over the destination of the £1m proceeds prompted the trustees to seek the High Court's guidance.

The money was passed into the hands of trustees, according to the directions of an 1892 trust deed, which stated the funds should be held and distributed by them in order to "promote Agapemonite objectives in such manner as they see fit". However, when it was drawn up no one envisaged a time when the sect and its members would have long died.

As Smyth-Piggott was the last survivor of the original trustees, the claimants said the money from the church sale should go to them.

Rachel Phillips, the great-granddaughter of Smyth-Piggott, also of Dunkeswell, Devon, appeared before the judge in London. But she was philosophical outside court, saying: "What will be will be."

Judge Simmonds ruled that Agapemonites who contributed to the church-building fund intended to endow the movement and never contemplated that individuals would benefit from their generosity.

The decision leaves the Charity Commission with the task of deciding which good causes most closely mirror the objectives of the Agapemonites. The granddaughters' legal costs will be paid out of the trust fund.

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