Praying on the Innocent

Critic’s Choice:

by Kate Barlow
(Mainstream, Pounds 16.99)
[ UK | Buy at US]

Secrets lurked around every corner at Agapemone (Greek for ‘Abode of Love’), the grand country house where Kate Barlow spent much of her extraordinary childhood.

In its heyday the 200-acre estate at Spaxton in Somerset had been home to a notorious religious cult, started in the 1800s by a hellfire-and-brimstone priest.

By the time Barlow stayed there, the cult was on its last legs and she knew nothing of her home’s scandalous history.

She took for granted the team of very old and eccentric ladies, with their hairnets, ear trumpets and jet necklaces, who were sequestered in various upper rooms.

She accepted as normal formal meals in the vast dining room where solid silver cutlery sparkled and a large portrait of her grandfather – always referred to by the entire household as Dear Beloved – gazed sadly down from the wall.

It was not until Barlow entered boarding school in the Fifties that rumours about Dear Beloved reached her ears, and she vowed to unravel her family’s truly bizarre history.

After months of poking about in attics and ransacking musty trunks for diaries and letters, Barlow discovered that her grandfather, John Smyth-Piggot, had become cult leader in 1899.

HE SUCCEEDED the founder, Brother Prince, who had from the outset attracted rich, unwed heiresses to his Abode of Love.

Stories soon spread among Spaxton’s scandalised population about Brother Prince’s less-thanspiritual relationships with his besotted disciples.

Although he forbade sex between husband and wife cult members, the wives were expected to be ‘Soul Brides’ to Brother Prince.

At the start of religious services in the Agapemone chapel, also used as a drawing room and billiards hall, followers had to greet Brother Prince with the shout ‘All hail thou king of glory!’, listen to sermons by him, attend to readings from his writings and sing the hymns he composed.

In 1856, Brother Prince decided he could liberate his followers from sin by experiencing spiritual union with a virgin.

The Day Of The Great Manifestation dawned, a young servant was brought into the chapel and the pair consummated their spiritual and otherwise union upon the altar in full view of Brother Prince’s legal wife and followers.

The newspapers had a field day and reams of scandalised reportage encouraged demonstrations and protests by outraged pillars of the community.

Soon after Smyth-Piggot took over, he announced that he was the risen Christ and would live for ever.

He, too, attracted susceptible spinsters, including five unwed daughters of a wealthy wool merchant. They showered Dear Beloved with cash and agreed to enter ‘spiritual marriages’ with cult members.

At the age of 52, Dear Beloved, claiming instructions from the Holy Ghost, took 35-yearold Sister Ruth to be his Spiritual Bride.

Their union, he claimed, would signify Christ’s forgiveness to the world and, as his longsuffering legal wife sat among the congregation, he and Ruth made their vows.

All this came as something of a shock to Barlow. She was a lone child in a home of elderly people, lurking and listening, ears wagging, to snatches of whispered conversation, trying desperately to put two and two together.

‘I did a lot of hanging about in tall wing chairs, open book in hand,’ she explains, as she describes daily life in the dwindling community, the faded luxury verging on shabbiness, the buckets to catch drips in the hall, and her scary grandmother (Dear Beloved’s Spiritual Bride).

Barlow’s own mother, Life, was financially desperate, hitting the bottle but determined to allow the last of her father’s followers to live out their days in comfort.

The biggest shock of all was the discovery that Dear Beloved, Ruth and their three illegitimate children – Hope, Power and Life – were known at Agapemone as The Holy Family.

They were brought up in great luxury, surrounded by a team of worshipping adults, their lavish lifestyle dependent on Dear Beloved’s followers willingly donating all their worldly wealth to the Abode of Love.

By the Fifites, funds had diminished to such an extent that Life was working in a jam factory.

As Barlow learnt, Dear Beloved (having been defrocked for immorality in 1909) further dashed the hopes of his believers by actually dying. He broke another promise by bequeathing all his worldly goods to the Holy Family.

When the last of the dwindling group of disciples had passed on, the Agapemone estate was broken up and sold in 1962.

Barlow’s is the first book to be written by an insider of the secretive cult, and the story she tells is every bit as gripping and compelling as the most imaginative fiction.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Daily Mail, UK
Mar. 31, 2006 Book Review
Val Hennessy

Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday April 1, 2006.
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