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Open the box! Take the prophecies!

12 December 2014

When Joanna Southcott died, 200 years ago this month, she believed that she was the virgin mother of the new Messiah. Peter Street  tells her story


Tomorrow's world: Joanna Southcott's box of prophecies

Tomorrow's world: Joanna Southcott's box of prophecies

ANGELS, a virgin birth, prophecies fulfilled, and the arrival of the Messiah - it is all very Advent and Christmas. But this was 200 years ago, in England, and the figure at the centre of this narrative was a farmer's daughter from Devon.

Joanna Southcott (1750-1814) and her fabled box - which contained secret prophecies witheld for revelation in a future time of national crisis - were a familiar part of the British landscape for most of the 19th and 20th centuries. She features in an early paragraph of Dickens's Tale of Two Cities, and appears in the writings of Southey and Macaulay.

Similarly, the mysterious contents of her box captured the popular imagination during the First World War, and were subsequently referred to in political cartoons of the 1920s. Southcott's box was even given a name-check in a Monty Python's Flying Circus sketch - not surprising, perhaps, seeing that she and her coterie have often been seen as something of a circus.

Her life and times, together with her prophecies and beliefs, however, gained a considerable contemporary following, and left a significant legacy.

These were apocalyptic times. Before the label the "Great War" was given to the conflict of 1914-18, the term referred to the almost continuous war between Britain and France from 1793 to 1815.

For many, the French Revolution of 1789 - following on from the successful overthrow of British rule in America - constituted "the wars and rumours of wars" mentioned in St Matthew's Gospel. This, many believed, presaged the Last Days.

Southcott was part of this atmosphere of expectation, and also a tradition known as "The Visita-tion". The idea rose to prominence, particularly in the late 18th century, that certain individuals in England had been inspired by God to prophesy, and prepare the way for, the end of the world.

From 1792, Southcott became increasingly aware of her divine mission as a prophetess with messianic connections. Initially, she sent her utterances to clergy for later verification, but she also filled a "Box of Sealed Prophecies" that could only be opened under certain conditions. The box survives, hidden away, because the conditions have yet to be met.

SOUTHCOTT was uncertain of her exact date of birth (normally said to be 25 April 1750), but she did claim that, just as when Jesus was born, "Angels rejoiced at my birth."

This took place at Taleford farm, near Ottery St Mary, in Devonshire. She was the daughter of a tenant farmer, the fourth of six children. The family later moved to Gittisham, about 16 miles from Exeter.

She was raised in the Church of England, and remained, essentially, an Anglican, although she periodically supported other traditions - notably the newly established Methodists. She did not set out to establish her own denomination, even though one was formed in her own lifetime, and she continued to attract support until the late 20th century.

Southcott was thoroughly grounded in the scriptures by her mother, and interpreted contem-porary events through this biblical filter. She initially had various jobs in the Exeter area, as a farm labourer, servant, and upholsterer. Her writings drew on these years.

She began experiencing the millenarian voices and visions in 1792, warning her of the imminence of war with France, and the consequent food shortages. She prophesied accordingly, and gathered support, not least because it appeared that a great deal happened exactly as she had foretold.

To reinforce the accuracy of her utterances she wrote them down, sealed them, and sent them to clergy, or other leading figures.

Many of her prophecies seemed to come true, notably those about the nature of harvests, together with the correct prediction of the (unexpected) death of the Bishop of Exeter. Some, however, disputed their accuracy, as her writing was so difficult to decipher, and she alone could read them. She was often accused, when reading them aloud, of adapting their contents to agree with the facts.

BETWEEN 1792 and 1814, Southcott produced some 65 pamphlets. A number of Anglican clergy and William Blake's engraver-friend William Sharp were attracted to her ideas.

It was in the 1790s that Southcott identified herself as "the woman clothed with the sun", as foretold in the Revelation to St John. She believed, too, that she had been instructed to seal those who would be among the 144,000 believers guaranteed a heavenly destination, also referred to in St John's apocalyptic vision.

She began to undertake this from 1802 onwards. She charged between 12 shillings and one guinea. In return, her customers received a "seal", comprising a piece of cardboard with a verse composed by Southcott, and a circle drawn in the middle signed by the believer at the top, and by Southcott below, which was folded and sealed with Southcott's design on the back. The seals were often buried with the dead, with a view to their claiming the promise of salvation on Judgement Day.

Urged on by her followers, she visited London in 1802 at the age of 52, and settled there permanently two years later. By 1807, several congregations of "Southcottians" had been established, meeting in what were known as Millennium Chapels, in London, the north, and west of England. By then, about 14,000 seals had been issued.

The practice was effectively aban-doned in 1809, after the execution of the murderer Mary Bateman. She was believed to have had links with the movement in Yorkshire, and had been sealed, although this was denied by Southcott.

SOUTHCOTT's brand of theology appealed strongly to women, who made up the majority of her followers. In particular, she argued that a female would play a key part in bringing about the Millennium. She believed that, although the Fall was wrongly attributed to a woman in Genesis 3, verse 15 of the same chapter promised that a woman would also be central to humanity's redemption. Her crushing victory over Satan would make woman once more man's perfect helpmate.

It was only in March 1814, however, that Southcott first fully realised her part in this. She concluded that she was the destined seed of Eve who had been visited by the Spirit of God.

Although she was a virgin, she announced that she was pregnant with Shiloh, a figure referred to in Genesis, and understood by her to mean the Messiah - referred to in Revelation as the "man child who was to rule all nations".

Now 64 years old, Southcott was examined by nine doctors, six of whom believed her to be pregnant. By November, she was said to be well overdue, and married John Smith, who saw himself as the new Joseph. Smith was a former steward to the Earl of Darnley, and page to the Prince Regent - later George IV - who may have visited Southcott and part-funded her.

News of the pregnancy generated a mixture of ridicule, commercial opportunity (with ballads and toy cots for sale), and generous gifts.

Southcott's health declined in late 1814, and she died in London on 27 December. Some followers thought she was in a trance; so, as she had stipulated, her body was kept warm for four days with hot-water bottles, in the hope that she could be resuscitated, and give birth to Shiloh.

An autopsy took place on 31 December, in the presence of sympathisers. There was no evidence of a pregnancy. Some argued that Shiloh had disappeared, fulfilling a 16th-century prophecy that "an old woman shall conceive and bare a conqueror, but he shall not stay with you. . ." This was linked with the idea of Southcott's being (only) temporarily in heaven, and her child being snatched by a dragon, as referred to in Revelation.

Because crowds had gathered, the body was transported to the undertakers at midnight, and buried under a false name in St John's Wood Burial Ground, London, on 1 January 1815.

ALTHOUGH the movement then splintered, some remained loyal to Southcott and all that she stood for. This included custody of the box of prophecies, weighing 156 lb, which she had been "told" to close in 1804. She said it was only to be opened at a time of national danger, and in the presence of all the bishops of the Church of England (who then numbered 24).

The box passed through various hands over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In late 1914, as war raged in Europe, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, was lobbied to sanction the opening of the box. He declined.

The box was presented to the Panacea Society in 1957 (Features, 29 July 2011). The Society - founded in Bedford in 1919 by Mabel Barltrop, who, as "Octavia", declared herself a prophetess in the tradition of "The Visitation" - sought to bring Southcott to wider attention, and to prepare for the box's opening, as and when prescribed.

The society was dissolved in 2012, and its headquarters is now the Panacea Museum. The box remains in a secret location.

Archbishop Davidson described Southcott as "a good woman". Others have seen her as more: a proto-feminist, to be seen alongside her more famous contemporary, Mary Wollstonecraft.

Joanna Southcott challenged the Church: "Is it a new thing for a woman to deliver her people? Did not Esther do it? Did not Judith do it?" We have yet to discover whether, with the pending appointment of women to the episcopate, there will be a more sympathetic response to calls for bishops to open the box.


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