When Moonies took over the village

Swindon Advertiser, UK/November 5, 2014

You could hardly wish for a more innocuous occasion than that inoffensive mainstay of rural life, the annual gymkhana.

Young gels trotting around on their ponies, occasionally bashing into the jumps. Fine strong mares with their gleaming coats and shiny, well-groomed manes. Posh people taking time out to hobnob with common folk.

Ah yes, and the unmistakable fragrance of freshly minted manure. If you’re lucky there may even be a beer tent. What’s there not to like?

So why, during the summer of 1976, was there uproar at the prospect of such an outwardly harmless event taking place in the vicinity of Swindon? The clue is in the location… Stanton Fitzwarren.

With its Norman church and adjoining woodlands that today serve as a nature-rich country park for the people of Swindon, a more pleasant or secluded bucolic enclave you could hardly wish for.

Back then though, 40 years ago, Stanton Fitzwarren was at the heart of a raging controversy – a veritable storm that sparked national headlines, inflamed the sensitivities of people from every strata of society and even prompted Questions in the House.

Lord of the Manor and respected Swindon architect Henry Masters had outraged convention, confounded society and stupefied fellow churchgoers by donating the sumptuous estate that had been in his family for 400 years to a “bizarre cult”.

 Their grand house, some farms, assorted outbuildings and cottages, along with around 600 acres of prime Wiltshire farmland that stretched “as far as the eye could see,” suddenly belonged to the “mysterious” Unification Church.

It was one of those stories that excited with equal enthusiasm news editors from the quality broadsheets and the popular tabloids. And it prompted the question that pretty much everyone in the country was suddenly asking: Who the hell is Sun Myung Moon?

Popularly known as The Moon People but soon afterwards the far snappier Moonies, the religious sect whose formal name is The Family Federation For World Peace And Unification was founded by Moon in South Korea in 1954 (see panel.) Over the years its tentacles slowly spread across the globe until, during the early Seventies 19 year-old Rosalind Masters – the daughter of Squire Henry of Stanton Fitzwarren – fell under its spell.

Her parents, who owned much of the 163 population village and were upstanding members of the churchgoing community, were understandably appalled. Who wants their child in the grips of a “weird cult?”

And then something so strange happened that it almost bordered on the unbelievable. Whereas Ros became disillusioned with the sect and fled, her parents – after delving into the cult and even visiting its training centre near Reading on their daughter’s advice – thought: “Great – this is for us.” In April, 1973, Henry Masters, 47, a local councillor and long standing churchwarden, along with wife Avril, 47, JP, parish councillor and president of the village Women’s Institute, quit their old life and joined the Moonies along with their two other teenage children.

Not only that, but the Masters donated to the Korean-founded church their ancient estate worth nearly £1 million. As the outcry ricocheted across the country the couple headed for the States, opening the door for the Moonies – including its national director – to move in.

Suspicious and disgruntled villagers referred to their new neighbours who began pouring into Stanton as The Saints or The God Squad.

Over the next few years the Moonies presence in Stanton seemed to provoke controversy after controversy. They were always at the centre of one row or other, often involving the established church, the borough council (over a string of planning issues) and an ever-inquisitive media.

Stories of alleged brainwashing – “vulnerable teenagers converted,” that sort of thing – spread like wildfire. Always vigorously denying such accusations, the exasperated Moonies eventually sued the Daily Mail – and lost.

Their bid to create a post office and shop in Stanton were scuppered by the council while plans for a Moonie restaurant also waned; some interesting names for such an establishment amusingly come to mind; Blue Moon, Moondance, The Moon and Sixpence, Bad Moon Rising… maybe not.) At the height of Moonie-mania the unthinkable happened… a gymkhana at South Farm in Stanton, which was now in the hands of the Unification Church, attracted banner-waving protesters, including a couple of clergymen.

“For perhaps the first time in the history of ponies and horses, a horse show will be picketed,” revealed the Adver in 1976.

Our follow-up story “Parsons Picket the Show” stated the protesters’ claims… that the event was “a device by the church to raise funds and recruit new followers for the ‘millionaire messiah’ Sun Myung Moon.”

The Moonies did not respond but had they done so the word “tosh” may well have figured.

The following year a group specifically set up to challenge the ever “controversial cult,” Family Action Information and Rescue (FAIR) claimed that Wiltshire – due to the sect’s presence near Swindon – had become “the most fruitful recruiting ground in Britain for the Moonies.”

Unification church-related headlines were not uncommon in this publication during these years: “Council stamps on Moonies’ plan,” “Moon cult barns must come down,” “Moon Cult man in clash with church,” etc We printed a number of stories over the years based on claims by former members alleging they had suffered “brainwashing” attempts.

The Unification Church threatened legal action on several occasions and once an Adver photographer was the unfortunate recipient of a bucket of manure over his head, down at Moonie farm. But we always printed the sect’s response when they gave one, which usually went along the lines of “Mind bending claims are ‘ridiculous.’”

At one stage it was rumoured that the man himself – Sun Myung Moon – would be visiting Stanton from his New York HQ… despite a campaign to have him banned from Britain.

And then – with the shockometer ready to explode – there was a whisper that Stanton was about to become the Moonie Capital of the UK; its very nerve centre. But it didn’t happen. In fact, the opposite did.

The sect’s Stanton activities, where they once ran a teaching centre and seminars, were dramatically downsized as, reportedly, were their operations in the UK with the bulk of followers decamping for the States.

It slowly went quiet on the Moonie front in Stanton.

The estate was run as a farm and around 20 properties rented out to the public, generating a healthy dollop of cash for the Rev Moon’s men.

Four years ago there were Unification ripples when they applied for – and were granted – permission to create a woodland burial ground at Stanton.

During the debate parish councillor Liz Bannister told the Adver: “There aren’t as many as there used to be – back then (in the Seventies) we did feel invaded.”

Church spokesperson Nancy Jubb reflected that in the past “various self-professed cult experts started making allegations saying we were brainwashing people and breaking up families.

“There was a subsequent four-year investigation into us by the British government but there was no evidence of any of that going on and we have maintained our charitable status to this day.”

  • Fed-up with accusations that he had been “conned” – a description used in the House of Commons – into handing over the family estate to the Moonies, Henry Masters penned a detailed missive to the Adver in April, 1978. In it, he said: “Frankly, most of what has been said is utter rubbish… joining the Unification Church was the best thing we ever did.”They signed up in order to “deepen their faith in God,” he said, before going on: “I feel great satisfaction in seeing the farms at Stanton run by our enthusiastic young people as a Christian co-operative… “It is such a contrast with the vandals and the football hooligans, the apathetic or the self-seeking.”
  • Sun Myung Moon (1920-2012), a multi-millionaire South Korean businessman, claimed to have become “the second messiah” after meeting Jesus on a hillside in 1935.


He devoted the rest of his life to establishing “The Kingdom of Heaven upon Earth” after founding the Unification Church in 1954.

It has been described as a hybrid of Christianity, Confucianism, Shamanism and anti-communism.

The cult spread and in the Seventies and early Eighties it claimed more than four million members in 120 countries. Subsequent decades saw followers dwindle but the Moonies still maintain a presence in many countries.

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