Life & Soul

Heretic of the week: Henry James Prince

Henry James Prince (with head covering) with the Agapemonites

Henry James Prince (1811-1899) became a doctor in 1832; five years later he gave up medicine due to his own ill health and entered an Anglican seminary in Wales.  

Ordained in 1846, he was accepted by the Bishop of Bath and Wells in Somerset and appointed curate at a rural church there. His rector being ill, Prince ran the parish by himself and underwent a series of  “possessions” through which he claimed to be united to Christ.  

As was customary in Wales in those days, women and men worshipped separately. Prince introduced a new division – “sinners” and “righteous”. Oddly enough, wealthy women made up a large percentage of the latter. To his flock Prince preached that he had been absorbed by God and was now an incarnation of the Holy Spirit.  His rector read his sermons, was cured and joined him.  

Prince began having “spiritual marriages” and encouraged a number of his flock to do likewise. Eventually, the bishop defrocked the rector and expelled him, Prince, and Prince’s new legal wife (the rector’s sister).  

The ménage headed off to Cambridgeshire. Driven from there a few years later by the Bishop of Ely, Prince and his collection of followers (always including rich ladies) settled in several different places, establishing in each a chapel and communal living quarters. Although Prince devoted a great deal of energy to “spiritualising” the marital state, many of the “spiritual marriages” produced physical children.  

Prince’s increasingly idiosyncratic rituals culminated in 1856 with a public consummation of one of his marriages before his flock; the weaker brethren fell away and there were a number of court cases.  

In 1892, the Agapemonites, as the group was called, resettled in Upper Clapton, where they built a chapel that still exists. After Prince died, the group lasted until 1956.