Thursday, 02 July 2020

Woman loses claim for share in £1m legacy of defunct sect

A WOMAN from Stonor whose grandfather ran a Victorian religious sect has failed to obtain a share of the £1 million proceeds from the sale of its church.

Margaret Campbell, 79, is one of six granddaughters of John Smyth-Pigott, who ran the Agapemonites following the death of Henry Prince, the movement’s founder, in 1902.

The women took their case to the High Court, arguing that as his direct descendants they should be entitled to his legacy.

However, Judge Andrew Simmonds QC ruled that the money must go to charity, saying the Agapemonites intended to endow the movement and never contemplated that individuals would benefit from their generosity.

The Agapemonites believed the return of Jesus Christ was imminent and Mr Smyth-Piggott was known simply as “Beloved” by his mostly female followers and took a number of “soul brides” while styling himself as the “heavenly bridegroom”.

The sect was based at a residential community in Spaxton, Somerset, but also built the Grade II* listed Church of the Arc of the Covenant in Clapton in the late 1890s. The Gothic building was designed by Joseph Morris and has a series of stained glass windows, created by illustrator Walter Crane, depicting the “true station of womankind” as subservient to men.

Mr Smyth-Piggott’s descendants were the building’s owners and trustees until it was sold to the Georgian Orthodox Church in 2010.

According to a trust deed drawn up in 1892, the proceeds must be used to “promote Agapemonite objectives in such a manner as [the trustees] see fit”.

The sect dwindled in popularity following Smyth-Piggot’s death in 1927 and the last practising member died in 1956.

Rachel Phillips, one of the six women, led their claim.

In a statement read out in court, the women said: “All six of us have been involved with the Agapemone in one way or another, having spent much of their childhood in the community in Spaxton or living in nearby villages.

“Like people born into a religion, they have not followed its precepts but it has been a formative part of their lives.

“All the community members are now long since deceased and there are no other descendants because one of the tenets of the Agapemone movement was that no one but the Beloved and his soul bride Ruth Ann Preece should have children.

“Therefore that leaves the six of us. The six named are the direct descendants of Beloved and his ‘soul bride’ and are next in line and are therefore the rightful and only true beneficiaries of the trust.”

The judge said it was a fundamental principle of charity law that the courts should not take it upon themselves to pass value judgments on different religions or on different sects within religions.

He said: “This, no doubt, reflects the long tradition of religious tolerance in this country which has persisted for most of the last three centuries.

“The court should not allow the delusions of Prince or Smyth-Piggott, or indeed the dubious activities of the two leaders, to obscure the fact that the objects of the 1892 trust deed were to promote the religious activities of a body of people who constituted a recognisable Christian sect. I find that the religious purposes of the Agapemonites were charitable in law.”

The Charity Commission will now distribute the money among good causes which it believes most closely resemble the Agapemonites.

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