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Joanna Southcott

The nineteenth-century working-class prophetess of the Second Coming
“Joanna Southcott the Prophetess Excommunicating the Bishops”, a contemporary lampoon by Thomas Rowlandson in 1814

To 21st-century eyes, the story of Joanna Southcott, the eighteenth-century Devon prophetess, might look like a risible fraud. It involves conveniently illegible prophecies, quack talismans, a preposterous phantom pregnancy – she was over 60! – and, most famously, a box sealed at her death in 1814 that is only supposed to be opened at a time of national crisis with 24 Church of England bishops in reverent attendance.

The box is still in the possession of one of the last Southcottian organisations still going today – the Panacea Charitable Trust, in the county town of Bedford. They treat Southcott and her legacy seriously, but in the past 200 years she has more often been remembered mockingly, especially by men. Her class and sex have always tinted her reputation.

Charles Dickens chuckles over her “five-and-twentieth blessed birthday” on the first page of A Tale of Two Cities. Someone very like Southcott – although under the name “Agnes Nutter” – appears in Good Omens, a 1990 comic novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. She issues laughably cryptic prophecies. Southcott’s box even crops up in a 1970 Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketch. “With fifty yards of this mile and a half race to go and it’s The Wash Basin in the lead from WC Pedestal,” rattles off Eric Idle, commentating on the Epsom Furniture Race. “Tucked in nicely there is The Sofa going very well with Joanna Southcott’s Box making a good run from Hat Stand on the rails…”

Southcott’s message was revolutionary: the person who would usher in the Second Coming was not a man

Despite humble beginnings, Southcott became popular in her time. Born in rural Devon in 1750, she grew up to be a servant, farm labourer and upholsterer. She was ill-educated, but a devoted reader of the Bible. (There must have been hundreds of thousands of pious, half-literate women like her – women whose intelligence was never given any other food for growth other than religion.)

In 1792, Southcott surprised everyone by becoming a prophet of the Second Coming. In the midst of devastating crop failures, soaring food prices and the terrifying news of the arrival of the Antichrist in France in the form of Napoleon Bonaparte, she said she’d begun to receive messages from an angelic Voice. She scribbled down these “prophecies”, in what sounds like an early version of what spiritualists would later call automatic writing.

Radicalism was in the air. Paine’s Rights of Man and Wollstonecraft’s The Vindication of the Rights of Woman had been published the year before. Southcott’s message was no less revolutionary: the person who would usher it the Second Coming was not a man. “Is it a new thing for a woman to deliver her people?” she asked. “Did not Esther do it? And Judith?”

Southcott began giving herself names from the book of Revelation. She was The Bride Of The Lamb. She was The Woman Clothed With The Sun. She said that the British people were Israelites, possibly the Lost Tribe. This curious idea was not unknown in radical religious circles at the time: William Blake riffed on it in the poem known today as “Jerusalem”.

The church’s response to Southcott was predictably hostile and snobbish. Her message spread nonetheless, especially among women and the poor. It helped when her prophecies, such as the surprise death of a bishop, seemed to come true – though sceptics sneered that only she could read her own writing.

In 1801, at the age of 51, she published a ninepenny pamphlet. Astonishingly, it reached thousands, and streams of further books followed. Her words even began to penetrate middle-class circles and, in 1804, on the orders of her spirit voice, and with the support of the radical engraver William Sharp, she moved to London.

With a remarkably modern instinct for reaching out to new followers, Southcott began to make – and possibly sell – Celestial Seals. These were signed squares of paper, folded and sealed, which were supposed to protect her tens of thousands of followers against Satan, and even to offer miraculous longevity.

Up to this point Southcott was a notable pioneer – an uneducated, working-class woman of menopausal age who defied all efforts to sideline or dismiss her. She was carrying the torch of a radical tradition descended from seventeenth-century puritan sects, and her influence would extend to future movements for justice and social transformation, including feminism.

But her reputation suffered when, in 1814, Southcott announced she was pregnant – by miraculous conception – with the Second Messiah, whom she named Shiloh. An array of doctors examined her. Most agreed that she was pregnant, even though she didn’t allow any of them to examine her.

The pregnancy’s progress was reported by the newspapers, even beyond the ninth month. Then, at the end of the year, Southcott died. The cause was dropsy – the medical term of the era for fluid retention, possibly caused by heart disease. No foetus was discovered at autopsy.

It is quite possible that Southcott believed wholeheartedly that her swollen body, the result of dropsy, was a miraculous pregnancy – a fulfilment of her prophetic mission. The Second Coming, however, had conspicuously not arrived, and this cast doubt on the posthumous reputation of Southcott and her Southcottians. In his survey of English religious sects, the nineteenth-century historian Johnson Grant looked down his High Church nose at her, doubting whether he should even mention “this wretched body of fanatics”. But “the delusion has spread abroad amongst the middle and lower classes to a considerable, nay, to an incredible extent”, he admitted, feeling obliged to give them due consideration.

Pyschologists have tried to understand why, when prophecies fail, many believers refuse to abandon their faith. In 1957, Leon Festinger famously came up with the idea of cognitive dissonance to explain it. Followers of failed prophets – and indeed all of us – readjust reality to fit our beliefs, he suggested, because we can’t bear the mental tension otherwise. Faced with a choice between catastrophic failure of our founding ideals and reinterpreting the challenge as further evidence of how right we were, many of us double down.

Portrait of Southcott by William Sharp

Some of Southcott’s followers did indeed become more devoted to the cause, claiming Shiloh had in fact arrived as predicted, but in spiritual form. Southcottian movements were born well into the twentieth century. The Panacea Society of Bedford was one of the strangest, founded after World War I by Mabel “Octavia” Barltrop, a curate’s widow and mother of four children who had suffered from depression after her husband died. Proclaiming herself the latest prophet in a messianic line descended from Southcott, she gathered around her a coterie of women.

The church’s response was predictably hostile but her message spread among women and the poor

Unlike the original Southcottians, the Panaceans were a distinctively middle-class, conservative cult. Many were widows of independent means, and their small community was as obsessed with decorum as with the Second Coming. One rule insisted on Barltrop’s immortality. Others specified the correct folding of napkins and eating of toast. The many rules were strictly enforced by Barltrop and her intimates.

In a conscious echo of Southcott’s seals, the women posted squares of “healing” linen, soaked in holy water, to correspondents all over the world. Other squares were buried at strategic points around the perimeter of Bedford, to create an “ark of protection” and claim the town for Barltrop, who was now proclaimed the Shiloh Messiah. In a remarkable show of real-world faith, the Panaceans also bought up suburban houses around Barltrop’s Bedford home, one of which was made ready for the 24 bishops and another diligently prepared for the Second Coming, complete with fitted carpets and a bathroom for the use of the Lord.

In the 1950s the group somehow came into possession of Southcott’s box. It was still sealed, despite the claims of the self-publicising “psychic researcher” Harry Price to have opened it in 1927. (He said he found a purse, a puzzle, some books and an antique cavalry pistol, “not cocked”.)

The Panaceans launched a national advertising campaign demanding that Anglican bishops should come to open the blessed box in order to prevent “war, disease, crime and banditry, distress of nations and perplexity”, all of which, they feared, were very much on the up. (It was this campaign, undoubtedly, that so amused the Python team.)

After the last member of the Panacea Society died in 2012, it was turned into a charitable trust with a large endowment. It runs a museum on Albany Road, makes benign local donations and funds research into millenarian Christianity, and into Joanna Southcott in particular.

Today, it sounds like a relatively ordinary charity, apart from one peculiarity: the Panacea Society still claims to have the blessed box, while refusing to display it or make any public comment. Maybe the trustees are tired of prurient journalists. Maybe the box is felt to be a little embarrassing – at once too odd and too ordinary to be a convincing holy relic.

“Too odd and too ordinary to be convincing” sums up how Southcott has been treated over the years. She has been a target for mockery not so much for what she said or did (which, including the proclaimed miraculous conception, is arguably no stranger than other established religions) but because she was a poor, uneducated woman on the fringes of modernity.

Too poor to be a respectable prophet or preacher in her time, she’s still too poor today – too poor, too uneducated, too recent, too English and, perhaps above all, too female. Joanna Southcott deserves better from history.

James McConnachie is an author, journalist and Sunday Times critic. He is currently writing a biography of a Himalayan mountain, to be published by Bloomsbury

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