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26 October 2017

What to do with the assets of a religious group that no longer exists: The strange case of the Agapemonites

In 2016 the High Court heard a case which involved strange byways of Victorian church history but which also involved wider issues of how legal principles apply to the assets of faith charities.

The case was an application for directions by the trustees of a trust declared by an 1892 Trust Deed relating to a plot of land in Stamford Hill, London N16, on which was built a church for the use of the members of a religious sect which emerged in the 1840s and was known as the Agapemonites.  The Agapemonite sect had become effectively defunct by the middle of the 20th Century.  The church was then leased to a different sect but was eventually sold to the Georgian Orthodox Church in 2011 for just over £1 million.  The Court had to decide how those sale proceeds should be disposed of. 

The Trust Deed provided that the land was purchased by the trustees “…for and on behalf of the body of people hereinafter mentioned…upon trust that they and the trustees for the time being of these presents shall at all times hereafter permit the same and any church, chapel or building which may be erected thereon to be used by and for all the purposes of the body of people which acknowledging the doctrine of the Trinity in unity as expressed in the creed commonly called The Apostles Creed worship the Lord Jesus Christ in his New Name as the Son of Man and believe in the Holy Ghost as having fulfilled the Gospel in “Brother Prince” and as being the covenant head of the Dispensation of Judgement introduced by Brother Prince whose teaching is contained in his writings “the Man Christ Jesus” and “The Counsel of God in Judgement”.

The Deed also contained a gift over, on the failure of those trusts, to the trustees for their own benefit.

The Church was built between 1893 and 1896.  It came to be known as the Ark of the Covenant.

Although the Trust Deed did not mention the Agapemonites by name, it was clear that the “body of people” referred to were indeed the Agapemonites.  The church was not held for the “body of people” as individuals but for the use of “all the purposes” or “the objects” of that body of persons.  The Judge said that although the description of the beliefs of the Agapemonites was a little rambling two things were clear.  First their beliefs were rooted in orthodox Christianity.  Secondly, they placed great faith in the teachings of “Brother Prince”.  This was a reference to Henry James Prince, the founder and first leader of the sect. 

The Agapemonites sect was formed in the 1840s by H J Prince, a Church of England curate who had become dissatisfied with mainstream doctrine.  Prince adopted a charismatic evangelical style of preaching which attracted considerable support from the professional middle classes.  Donations from his well heeled followers enabled Prince to establish a retreat or community (the Agapemony from the Greek abode of love) in the Somerset village of Spaxton which continued to operate until it was eventually sold off in the 1960s. 

The sect and Prince in particular attracted considerable notoriety for reasons not directly related to the religious beliefs of its adherents.  Prince arranged for some of his leading male cohorts to enter into “spiritual” marriages with three wealthy spinster sisters (the Nottidges) enabling Prince to acquire control of their assets.  A fourth Nottidge sister became the subject of High Court litigation when her brother kidnapped her from Spaxton and had her placed in a lunatic asylum with a view to protecting her from Prince’s influence.  The Court ordered Prince to retransfer some stock which Louisa had gifted to him on the grounds that the gift was procured by Prince’s undue influence over her as her spiritual leader.  In fact, once released from the asylum, the sister returned to the Agapemony and lived there, apparently, contentedly, until her death in 1858.  Rumours also circulated of sexual impropriety and exploitation. 

In the late 1880s a successor to Prince was found, the Reverend Smythe-Pigott.  He was another disaffected Church of England Clergyman who had abandoned a comfortable middle class curacy in North London to join the then radical Salvation Army and had then left that organisation under a cloud.  The Reverend Smythe-Pigott focused his preaching efforts on London and, continuing in Prince’s fiery charismatic style, succeeded in attracting many new followers.  The extent of his success can be measured by the plan which then emerged to establish a permanent place of worship for sect followers in London.  The purchase of a plot of land in Stamford Hill and the subsequent construction of the church were funded by donations from the faithful.

Prince died in 1899 and was duly succeeded as leader by Smyth-Pigott.  The practices of the sect seem to have become bizarre from that point but that was not relevant to the meaning of the 1892 Trust Deed. 

Smythe-Pigott died in 1927 and it appears that the sect in London withered on the vine after his death, although the community at Spaxton continued until the land and buildings were sold in 1962.  From 1956 until 1978 the then trustees of the 1892 Trust Deed leased the church to the Ancient Catholic Church which continued to occupy it until about 2008.

The church was registered as a charity in 1965 but the Charity Commission removed it from the register in 2004. 

The judge examined the belief system of the Agapemonite community whilst under the leadership of Prince.  This seems to have been bizarre.  For example in 1845 Prince declared that prayer was unnecessary because “the day of grace was closed and the day of judgement had commenced”.  The judge concluded that whilst the delusional and egotistical nature of Prince’s claims was self-evident, Prince had claimed only to be God’s witness or instrument.  He did not assert some personal messianic status.  It was only following Prince’s death that Smythe-Pigott made even more ambitious claims, once provoking a riot during which the church was stormed.

The judge had to decide whether the trusts declared by the 1892 Deed were recognised by the law as charitable as being for the advancement of religion and whether they were for exclusively charitable purposes.  It is only if the relevant assets must be applied for objects which are charitable in law that the privileges attaching to charitable status apply.  Those questions fell to be answered by reference to the precise terms of the 1892 Deed and the background circumstances in 1892. 

It is a fundamental principle of this branch of charity law that the courts do not take it upon themselves to pass value judgements on different religions or on different sects within religions.  The judge referred to the case Thornton v Howe in which the Master of the Rolls stated:

“In this respect, I am of the opinion that the Court of Chancery makes no distinction between one sort of religion and another.  They are equally bequests which are included in the general term of charitable bequests.  Neither does the Court, in this respect, make any distinction between one sect and another”.

In that case a fund had been left for the printing, publishing and propagation of the sacred writings of the late Joanna Southcote.  The Master of the Rolls concluded that although the works of Joanna Southcote were in a great measure incoherent and confused, they were written obviously with a view to extend the influence of Christianity so the Will created a charitable trust. 

The Judge concluded that the fact that Prince’s claims were foolish and delusional did not disqualify the trust declared in 1890 from charitable status if it was established “with a view to extend the influence of Christianity”.  In his judgement, it was.  In Thornton v Howe it had been said that “it may be that the tenets of a particular sect inculcate doctrines adverse to the very foundation of all religion and that they are subversive of all morality”.  If that had been true of the Agapemonites the 1892 Trust could not have been charitable.  However, that was a very high threshold and the Judge was not satisfied that it had been crossed.  The judge decided that the Court should not allow either the delusions of Prince (or Smythe-Piggot) 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.  He found that the religious purposes of the Agapemonite sect were charitable in law.

Before the enactment of the Charities Act 2006 (which had no retrospective effect) the necessary element of public benefit was presumed in relation to religious charities and the judge concluded that that presumption was not displaced in the case of the 1892 Trust Deed.

The judge found that the purposes or objects of the Agapemonite Sect were not exclusively charitable.  The trusts declared by the 1892 Trust Deed were not exclusively charitable since they referred to “all the purposes” of the sect.  However the Deed came within the scope of the Charitable Trusts (Validation) Act 1954.  The effect of that Act is where a disposition made in an instrument taking effect before 16th December 1952 is not exclusively charitable it is to be treated as exclusively charitable if it would otherwise be invalid.  However, after the passing of that Act, the property comprised in that disposition must be applied for exclusively charitable purposes.  Thus the 1892 Trust Deed was to be treated as a disposition for exclusively charitable purposes.

The judge decided that the 1892 Trust Deed had contained an outright or perpetual trust for charitable purposes, despite the gift over to the trustees which was simply a fall back in case the unexpected happened.  Consequently the cy-près jurisdiction applied and the Judge directed that the net proceeds of sale of the Ark of the Covenant should be applied cy-près pursuant to a scheme determined by the Charity Commission. The grandchildren of the Reverend Smythe-Pigott had argued that the sale proceeds should be shared between them on the footing that they were the only people left who had anything to do with the Agapemonites.  However that was a course which was not legally open to the Judge.

Although the facts considered in this decision were bizarre, it does contain a number of points of wider significance.  It is seldom that the Court has to consider the 1954 Act and the decision is also interesting for its examination of the principles which the Court must apply in deciding what to do with the assets of defunct religious bodies and for the fact that the judge had, to some extent, to make a value judgment concerning the beliefs of the sect in question.


This article was written by George Duncan. For more information please get in touch wit George on +44(0)20 7203 5054 or via George.Duncan@crsblaw.com

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