Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Crazy Congregation of the Southcottian Shiloh

                     The eminent Victorian surgeon and physiologist Sir Benjamin C Brodie, Bart., in his Psychological Inquiries (1854), wrote, 
It is not long since no small number of persons, and not merely those belonging to the uneducated classes, were led to believe that a dropsical old woman was about to be the mother of the real Shiloh,” adding later in the same work, she was “… not altogether [an] impostor, but in part the victim of [her] own imagination.” 
Sir B C Brodie - Psychological Inquiries - 2nd Ed 1855

He is alluding to Joanna Southcott, that self-proclaimed prophetess to whom I introduced you yesterday. Not all of the commentators on Southcott were quite so benign: - 
That she must be either an unfortunate lunatic, or a deliberate money-getting impostor, is evident; and in either case it is evident that some stop should be put to that torrent of fanaticism and blasphemy, which flows from her preaching and publications. If she be insane, why has she not the benefit of proper medical advice? But if this apology cannot be offered for her ravings, it is right she should be told, that though the laws of her country are wisely tolerant in all matters of religious opinion, they have provided that the sacred name of the Deity shall not be profaned with impunity.
 (Bell’s Monthly Messenger) 

Bell's Monthly Messenger

There is a very thin line between respecting the religious beliefs of others, regardless of how deluded, ridiculous or obnoxious they may seem to us, and condemning those that are unequivocally dangerous, disgusting or down right wicked. That line is blurred further when cultural practices hide behind the name of Religion. A case in point are so-called ‘honour killings’; there are people in this world to whom such things are entirely permissible and a faultless, logical solution to certain of life’s problems, and there are others who see such things as perverted, obscene crimes that should have been left behind in the Stone Age. There are mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, who consider it entirely normal to mutilate the bodies and minds of their sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, and hide behind the mask of Religion to justify their perversions. Personally, I may find that criminally indefensible, but there are ‘lesser’ crimes in which we are complicit on a daily basis, simply because we simply don’t want to cause a fuss or cause offence to those who are not like us. We accommodate crime when it calls itself culture. But that, (and the categorical and hypothetical imperatives), are something for another day and another place.

Joanna Southcott

When Joanna Southcott died, in 1814, she had in excess of 100,000 followers. Now its one of those defining traits of humankind that when we have made a decision, we like to stick with it. We prefer the familiar. We like what we know and we know what we like. So when Joanna departed this world, her followers looked for a replacement and some of them found their substitute in the person of John Ward aka Zion Ward aka Shiloh. 

John Ward - Zion's Work

Ward had been born at Cobh, Ireland on Christmas Day, 1781, and had been variously a shipwright, sailor and a cobbler. After his travels (he served at the Battle of Copenhagen), he married and followed various religious paths, from Calvinism, through Methodism, to the Baptists and other independents. In 1814, he read Southcott’s Fifth Book of Wonders, was captivated by it and began to preach a version of its universalism. 

Joanna Southcott - Fifth Book of Wonders - 1814

He fell in with Mary Boon, a fanatical Sabbatarian who claimed to be Southcott revived, and became the ‘reader’ of her dictated letters (she was illiterate) before assuming the role of prophet himself. From 1825, he began to experience visions of Southcott who gave him instructions, his followers dated 1826 as their ‘First Year, new date’, and in 1827, he gave up his shoemaking and became a full time preacher. 

Hogarth - Enthusiasm Delineated - 1761

He was committed to the Newington workhouse for six months, on grounds of insanity, and upon his release he began to name himself Zion and Shiloh. In concert with Charles William Twort, he began publishing religious tracts and the pair toured England preaching. In 1832, at Derby, they erected placards announcing a meeting that was to take place on July 15th, a feast day; the local minister, James Dean, tore the placards down, so Ward and Twort replaced them, only for Dean to tear them down again. Ward and Twort raised them yet again, so Dean tore them down for a third time, whereupon Twort attacked him. On August 4th, Twort was brought before the bench on assault charges, found guilty, and he and Ward were also found guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to eighteen months in Derby gaol. 

Hogarth - Enthusiasm Delineated (Detail) - 1761

The case was raised in Parliament, with the radical Henry Hunt presenting a petition of 200 signatures calling for their release and violently attacking the government for prosecuting opinions (the case has curious parallels to similar arguments today), but the motion failed and the sentence stood. They were released in 1834, and continued their mission, but ill health struck Ward. He had a paralytic stroke in 1835, and died at Leeds in March 1837. Ward taught a curious mixture of theo-babble, some taken from Southcott, although he was aware of the teachings of other contemporary prophets, but the majority was a mish-mash of his own interpretation of the Bible, particularly the Septuagint, and he devised a curious cabbala to extract hidden meanings, even from the printed English version. 

A Meeting in a Woodland Grove

One of his barmiest actions was reported by The Philanthropic Gazette and the story was taken up by other newspapers, that on October 14th 1817, over one hundred Southcottians, led by Ward, met in woodland at Forest Hill, Sydenham. They formed a circle and began praying and chanting, then a small black pig was introduced. The men present began beating it with sticks and cudgels, whilst each of the women took a cleaver and delivered nine ritual blows to the poor creature’s head. When it was obviously dead, it was wrapped in iron chains and suspended over a fire until it was reduced to ashes, which the congregation scattered over their heads and trampled underfoot, whereafter they recommenced singing and praying. 

Hog Roast or Exorcism? - You Decide.

A spectator later asked one of the participants just exactly was it was they had been up to, and was told that the rite had Mosaic dispensation, conformed to the words of Shiloh and had precedent in Luke 8 26-39 - the story of the man possessed by demons which Jesus exorcised by forcing them out and into the Gadarene swine, which were destroyed by being driven over a cliff. 

Briton Rivière - The miracle of the Gadarene Swine - 1883

The Southcottians had cast out their own demons (or sins) into the black pig, which had been bound in chains (like the demoniac in Luke) thereby binding and burning Satan himself. When this spectator questioned the judgment of these believers, they laughed, waved their branches and, with ribands on their breasts, returned singing to London, proclaiming their triumph. 

The incident, apparently, was inspired by one of Southcott’s dreams which she recorded in her Sound an Alarm in My Holy Mountain (1804), 
In 1794, thou askedst Satan's destruction in prayer, when I promised to give thee thy petition, which was Satan's destruction. Soon after I shewed thee in a dream of a pig being dipt in the boiling furnace, tied up in the middle, and brought in upon a pole by two men, which I then told thee was a type of the devil; for, by the pole of the Gospel he must come down. Another dream, that thou thoughtest thou wast fighting with him, till thou pulledst the skin from off his face. Another dream thou hadst of fighting with him, and of putting his fingers in thy mouth, and thou didst bite them off, and saidst the blood was sweet, as it was thy revenge over him.”
Joanna Southcott - Sound an Alarm in My Holy Mountain - 1804

You’ve got to think that Joanna’s spirit is alive and well and living on t’internet, where it manifests itself in multitudinous, multi-coloured, comic sans screeds issuing mainly from mid-Western America.

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