A Victorian era sect with scandalous rituals and a belief in the imminent Second Coming.
The Agapemonites, also known as the Community of The Son of Man, was a Christian religious group that emerged in England from 1846 to 1956. Founded by Henry James Prince, a charismatic and controversial figure, the sect was characterized by its unorthodox practices and beliefs, particularly around the concept of “spiritual marriage” and the anticipation of the Second Coming.
Origins and Beliefs
Henry Prince, born to a West Indian plantation owner, underwent a religious conversion in 1834 and eventually abandoned a career in medicine for a religious calling. Despite facing opposition from the Church of England for his unorthodox teachings, Prince managed to gather a following, initially in Brighton and Weymouth, and later in Spaxton, Somerset, where he established the Agapemone or “abode of love”.
The Agapemonites held unconventional views on marriage, sexuality, and the end of the world. Prince declared himself a divine figure, the embodiment of the Holy Spirit, and engaged in practices that scandalized Victorian society. Among the most notorious events associated with the Agapemonites was a public ceremony in 1856, where Prince and a female follower engaged in what was claimed to be a “spiritual marriage,” observed by members of the community.
Controversies and Legal Battles
The sect’s practices often led to legal and social conflicts, notably involving the wealthy Nottidge family, whose daughters became entangled with the Agapemonites. These conflicts resulted in high-profile legal cases that challenged the norms of Victorian England regarding personal freedom, religious expression, and the control of property within families.
Leadership and Legacy
Following Prince’s death in 1899, leadership passed to John Hugh Smyth-Pigott, who continued the tradition of controversial claims to divinity. Smyth-Pigott’s leadership saw the construction of the Church of the Ark of the Covenant in Clapton, London, which served as a new center for the sect’s activities. Despite Smyth-Pigott’s ambitious efforts, the sect’s influence waned, and its practices became more subdued over time.
The Agapemonites’ history is a vivid illustration of the complexities and challenges of religious innovation in Victorian England. Their story intersects with themes of personal liberty, societal norms, and the often tumultuous relationship between new religious movements and mainstream culture. The sect’s decline after Smyth-Pigott’s death led to the eventual dissipation of the community by the mid-20th century, with the last member passing away in 1956.