Messianic Victorian Sect Had Charitable Purposes, High Court Rules
Some people might think that the law of trusts is as dry as dust – however, that is by no means always so. In one case that proved the point, the High Court was called upon to rule on the correct destination of almost £1 million yielded from the sale of a church where followers of a messianic Victorian sect once worshipped.
The sect was highly controversial in the 19th Century, its detractors claiming that it was built upon a personality cult and involved sexual practices that were a long way out of keeping with the day. The sect, which once had thousands of members, went into decline following the death of its leader and was defunct by 1956.
The splendid church had been built with funds raised by the sect’s followers and was held by trustees in accordance with the terms of an 1892 indenture. All of the original trustees were long since deceased and, after the church was sold, an issue arose as to what should be done with the proceeds.
The six granddaughters of the sect’s leader argued that the money should be paid to them. However, in rejecting their arguments, the Court noted that those who had donated to the church building fund had intended their contributions to promote the objectives of the sect. They would not have contemplated either the end of the movement or that individuals would derive benefit from their generosity.
In finding that the religious purposes of the sect were charitable, the Court noted the fundamental principle of charity law that the courts do not take it upon themselves to pass value judgments on different religions or their sects. That was a reflection of the religious tolerance that had held sway in Britain for hundreds of years. The purpose of the trust was to promote the religious activities of a body of people who constituted a recognisable sect of Christianity.
In the circumstances, the Court directed that the money should be passed to the Charity Commissioners, who would have the task of distributing it amongst good causes that most closely resembled the objectives of the sect.