Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Paradisical Permits of the Preposterous Prophetess

                Some are born mad, some achieve madness and some have madness thrust upon ‘em, if I might paraphrase Malvolio, and there are none quite so mad as those inspired by divine madness. One such was Joanna Southcott, born to peasant parents at Devon in April 1750. Her early life was unremarkable - she was a domestic servant until, in 1790, she took work at an upholsterer’s shop in Essex. 

Joanna Southcott in later life

Her employer was a Methodist and attracted other similar believers to his premises, by whom Joanna was impressed, converting from the Church of England to Methodism. The ministers encouraged her ‘serious turn of mind’ and she began to assume an authoritarian deportment entirely unsuited to her position as a shopkeeper. She was introduced to a Mr Saunderson, who claimed to have the gift of prophecy and pretty soon afterwards Joanna also began to experience prophetic dreams. One day, whilst sweeping out the shop, she discovered a seal bearing the initials J.S., which, she claimed, as these were both her initials and those of Jesus Christ, was undoubtedly a miracle that had been revealed to her in a dream. She declared that,  
“…her Lord had visited her, who promised to enter into an everlasting covenant with her, and told her that a vision would be shown to her in the night,”
 and in 1792, she left behind the humble shopwork and devoted herself entirely to spreading her divine message. 

Quilt made by Joanna Southcott

She announced that she was the 'Woman Clothed in the Sun' described in the Book of Revelations (Ch. 12), adding such further titles as ‘The Lamb’s Wife’ and the ‘Bride’. She wrote down her prophecies, but her virtual illiteracy made this difficult so she soon resorted to dictating her visions, prophecies and dreams. 

Example of Southcott's Handwriting

In addition, she began to make and sell her Passports to Paradise, signed and sealed by her in red wax, which guaranteed entry into Heaven for the bargain price of between twelve shillings to one guinea. 

Passport to Paradise signed by Southcott

She moved to London at the request of the printer, William Sharp, who kept her at his own expense, and began working on the 144,000 sealed Passports necessary for The Elect mentioned in the Book of Revelations 14.1
 “And I looked, and, lo, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion, and with him an hundred forty and four thousand, having his Father's name written in their foreheads.” 

Inside a Passport to Paradise

Her numerous pamphlets brought her many followers and her fame grew, and as it did, so did her ambition. She began writing letters to assorted bishops, warning them of the inherent dangers to humanity if they ignored her, which, to their credit, they did. Further letters followed, growing ever more strident and selective in the use of biblical quotations and the bishops, denying her the oxygen of publicity, continued their silence. 

Pamphlet by Joanna Southcott 1808

So Joanna changed tack, and announced to the world that Jesus Christ had spoken directly to her and had given her a series of important communications that had been sealed in a special wooden box, only to be opened when the country was in direst circumstances, and in the presence of 24 bishops who had spent several days previous studying the works and writings of Joanna Southcott. 

Joanna Southcott's Box

This box still exists, hidden in a secret location, in the possession of the Panacea Society, and from time to time there are campaigns to have it opened. One such occurred during the Crimean War, and another during the First World War, and the psychic researcher Harry Price claimed to have opened it in 1927, finding only various bits of paper, an old lottery ticket and a broken horse pistol, but the Panacea Society claim that this was not the real box, but merely a decoy. The Church of England distances itself from Joanna Southcott’s Box, on the grounds that its participation will only arouse unnecessary interest and publicity. 

Joanna Southcott - The Strange Effects of Faith

Joanna continued to pour out her prophecies and revelations in a torrent of books and her congregation grew to number over 100,000 followers. Her next great surprise concerned Shiloh, the Messiah mentioned in Genesis 49:10, 
The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.” 
Joanna Southcott, she announced, would bear this Shiloh herself, as the fruit of the Holy Spirit, and despite her being sixty-four years of age. Joanna received many gifts for Shiloh, including a £40 Bible and a £200 decorated cot. 

Shiloh's £200 Cot

Several medical men attested to her pregnancy, and others denied it, and the date of October 19th 1814 was put forward as that of the expected arrival. The date came and went, and Joanna next declared that the birth would happen on December 25th 1814. She took to her bed and waited. And waited. Christmas Day came and went. 

Charles Williams - Joanna Conceiving - 11814

The next day, surrounded by friends and supporters, she died but the story was put out that she had fallen into a trance. She lay in the bed for four days until the smell convinced even the most fervent of her followers that this was no trance. Doctors examined her and declared the roundness of her belly was no pregnancy but the result of  
‘… bile, and flatulency, from indulgence and want of exercise.’ 

Southcott and her £40 Bible

She was buried, secretly, at St John’s Wood, but a tombstone and a memorial plaque was raised in her memory there. 

Announcement of the Death of Joanna Southcott

There were various rumours spread amongst the Southcottians (as her disciples are known), including one that said she had died in order to go to heaven where she could give birth to Shiloh, who was a spiritual child and not a mortal one, and that she would return to earth at a later date. In 1817, a procession marched through Temple Bar, chanting, 
Wo ! wo ! to the inhabitants of the earth, because of the coming of Shiloh!” 
as their leader blew a brass trumpet, until the crowd pelted them with mud, a fight broke out and several people were arrested. People continued to follow her throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, when there was a slight revival of Southcottianism in the 1920s. 

Joanna Southcott Tracts offered for sale

From my researches, I have found that there are still two people living today who claim to be followers of her teachings. Just to give you a flavour of her style, here is a little piece taken entirely at random, taken from one of her books also chosen at random.
Yet Satan's weapons will be strong, with rage and fury; to fight in men, till, like Sodom and Gomorrah, they will be destroyed, and swept away with the besom of destruction. But, from the days of Noah, there is a long warning, to awaken those who are not so strongly filled with the devil against my coming to bring in my kingdom of righteousness and peace. Thy faith is given to thee as a gift of God, which the world can neither give thee, nor take it from thee: and they will find that the sound of thy Master's feet is behind thee.”
Letter of Prophecy, published in the Morning Herald, Nov 19 1813.

Philip Pullen - Index - 1815

An Index of the Divine and Spiritual Writings of Joanna Southcott, by Philip Pullen, published in 1815, lists sixty-five books by or about her. Some of these are over 700 pages in length - she was, shall we say, prolific if nothing else. So much so, that I’ll return to her tomorrow.

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