The founder was a doctor and clergyman of the Church of England called Henry James Prince. His first curacy was in the nearby village of Charlinch where his passionate evangelical preaching directed at women soon forced his resignation.
After brief spells in Suffolk and Brighton he returned to the county to establish his own order of specially chosen spiritual brides, a task that was made financially possible by persuading a group of wealthy sisters to marry some of his male colleagues. Although the aim was to make the community self-supporting through the farm, the Agapenome was soon a wealthy society as new members to the sect were expected to donate their worldly goods. So much so that they were able to afford to build an extravagant temple, the Ark of the Covenant, at Clapton in London.
The centre of the Somerset community was the chapel, which also acted as bar, lounge and billiards room. It was here that the ‘Great Manifestation’ took place.
Prince, who was already married, had been promising that a Bride of the Lamb, a young beautiful virgin, would have to be chosen if the society was to be truly purged of sin. And one day, in a dramatic pseudo-religious ceremony, he chose a sixteen-year-old orphan called Sister Zoe. To his embarrassment she later became pregnant.
The Agapemonites lived well – eating drinking and playing billiards in the company of attractive young ladies, but despite the actions of their beloved leader, the rest of the community, including the married couples lived in chastity.
In 1899 the impossible happened, the man who had promised immortality to his followers, himself died – it is claimed that he was buried standing up to aid resurrection. The sect was now both confused and leaderless. So Douglas Hamilton, a member who had taken on the business responsibili-ties of the Agapemonites, took it upon himself to go out into the world to discover a new Messiah – he found John Hugh Smyth-Pigott in Dublin. This was a man who was good-looking, charming and delighted in the company of women; he was a curate who was determined to use religion to satisfy his own ambitions and desires. In the cruellest sense, he was the perfect replacement.
Douglas Hamilton told him that the ‘sisters’ were awaiting a new ‘Heavenly bridegroom’, and Smyth-Pigott replied that their ‘sour-husband’ would be coming. Smyth-Pigott went first to the Agapemonite church in London, where his proclamations that he was ‘God not man’ soon resulted in riots and he escaped to the Abode of Love in Spaxton. Here he made subtle changes to reinvigorate the order: new members were brought in, equipment was modernised, the farm prospered and relations with the local village were improved, largely through the work of his wife Catherine. But all the time he maintained the myth of the Bride of the Lamb, reduced the influence and status of the men, and the upper class of the community (those who did not work) became accessible to only the most beautiful 30-50 women, from which he would choose seven ‘spiritual brides’ each week.