Two hundred years ago, this month, a woman who had claimed she would give birth to the second Messiah a few weeks before was said to be lying in a trance. Before the end of the month, she would be dead, though the exact date of her passing is unknown, since her most devout followers kept her body with them for some time, in the hope she would rise from the dead. Though it was unlikely she had brought forth the second Messiah, based on her calculations, the Messiah would certainly arrive in 2004, or was that 2014?
The passing of a woman who believed she would be the mother to the second Messiah . . .
The woman, of course, was Joanna Southcott, born in April of 1750, the daughter of a Devonshire farmer. She had only a rudimentary education and spent much of her free time studying the Bible. Joanna worked for a time on a farm, then went into domestic service, during which time she lived a quiet and unremarkable life. In 1790, she took a position in the home of an upholsterer in Exeter, and it was there that her life began to change. A Methodist preacher came to the area not long after Southcott arrived. Of questionable morals, this preacher became a boarder in the house where she worked, and carried on an adulterous relationship with the woman of the house. Apparently, he also tried to seduce the woman’s daughter. But he was able to hide his personal proclivities and his fiery and evangelistic preaching style captured a large following. For those who were not overawed by his preaching style, he claimed he was specially favored by God, and had the power to call down God’s wrath on anyone who opposed him. He claimed he had once prayed a man to death. Most of the servants in the house where Southcott worked were terrified of this man, but she was not. She somehow came to the conclusion that he had no power over her, and came to believe that it was she who was especially favored by God.
When Southcott first arrived in Exeter, she had attended the Church of England services in the cathedral there, as she had done all her life. But within a year, she had forsaken the Church of England and joined the Wesleyan congregation, claiming she did so on Divine command. Her master’s shop seems to have been a frequent meeting place for the Wesleyan ministers. They started to take notice of Southcott, who had begun to speak of her visions of the Lord. In 1792, a meeting of Methodist preachers was called to examine her and discuss her spiritual condition. At the conclusion of the meeting, the ministers signed a document stating that they believed she had experienced a legitimate call from God. From that time she began to attract an increasingly large number of followers. Curiously, shortly thereafter she believed she was visited by the devil, and wrote about the experience in a series of rapturous, if rather incoherent articles, which drew some attention from the authorities. Nevertheless, she continued to draw more and more followers. It was at about this time that she claimed that she was the ". . . woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet . . ." mentioned in the Book of Revelations. Throughout what might be called her ministry, Joanna Southcott’s predictions and pronouncements were of a decidedly feminist nature, regularly including women at the core of her philosophy.
In 1802, Joanna Southcott moved to London, where her fame grew and many considered her a prophet. She was able to support herself by the sale of what she called sealed passports to heaven. More than 100,000 passports were sold, at twelve shillings to a guinea apiece. With the revenue from the sale of her heavenly passports, Southcott was able to live a fairly comfortable life. She was even able to afford a secretary to write for her, since her handwriting was nearly illegible. Southcott spent much of her time writing religious tracts which she published and sold to her many followers. But she also wrote a number of prophecies, which she sealed up with instructions they were not to be opened until a certain date, primarily to protect herself from ridicule by non-believers. But the economic difficulties in Britain, and the ongoing wars abroad drove more and more people who felt the need for hope and reassurance to Southcott’s sect, alternately known as the "Southcottians" or the "Joannians." Though some people who claimed to have a connection with a higher power were sent to prisons or mental institutions, Joanna Southcott was not bothered by the authorities.
Joanna Southcott had refused several suitors for her hand over the course of her life, claiming she felt the need to remain chaste and celibate. However, in the late spring of 1813, at the age of sixty-three, Southcott announced that she was with child, by Divine intervention, and would give birth to the second Messiah, on 19 October 1814. The child was to be named Shiloh, the name taken from Genesis. At least nine different medical men were called in to consult on the case. Some of them were of the opinion that she was suffering from dropsy, but six of them stated publicly that Southcott’s symptoms, in a younger woman, would indicate pregnancy. The Southcottians were overjoyed at the news, and the most wealthy among them sent some remarkably costly gifts. A crib for the child was made by the by the elite cabinet-makers, Seddons, of Aldergate Street, which was valued at £200. A £100 silver pap-spoon, for feeding the baby, and a number of caudle-cups arrived. In addition, dozens of white lace and satin caps, infant bibs, mantles, napkins and gowns were sent. An ornate Bible bound in red morocco leather stamped with a number of religious symbols was also sent by other followers. An advertisement was placed in The Morning Chronicle for "a large furnished house" to accommodate a public accouchement. That same newspaper announced on the following day that "a great personage" had offered the "Temple of Peace in the Green Park" for the event. The anticipated birth had become news to the wider public, not just the Southcottians, and much of London was buzzing with speculation.
Southcott had initially assumed she would give birth within a few months of her announcement and had married one of her followers to avoid the stigma of being an unwed mother. However, 19 October 1814 came and went, with no change in her condition. Some of her followers put it about that Shiloh had been born as a spirit and had immediately ascended to Heaven. But before the month was out, it appears that Southcott may have suspected that she was seriously ill and possibly dying. She directed that all the baby gifts which had arrived be returned. She secretly placed a number of papers and other items in a leather-bound wooden box which she sealed and entrusted to one of her followers, a woman who had been in attendance on her for many years, instructing her that it was not to be opened except at a time of national crisis, in the presence of twenty-four bishops, before the arrival of the second Messiah. Her calculations for the arrival of this second Messiah were a bit confusing, and depending upon how they were interpreted, the Messiah would arrive for the Day of Judgement sometime in the year 2004 or 2014.
Some time in November 1814, Southcott called her most loyal followers to her bedside and informed them that she had come to the conclusion that her pregnancy "all appears a delusion" and that her "dissolution" was drawing near. She requested that an autopsy be performed four days after her death and also provided instructions on how she would like her funeral conducted. She was in a state of severe mental exhaustion and not always conscious during her last days. Her closest followers, who remained with her to the end, maintained that she was in a trance. Joanna Southcott probably died a day or two after Christmas. Her date of death is now generally given as 27 December 1814. The exact date of her death is unknown, since those Southcottians who remained with her refused to relinquish her body immediately upon her death. They believed that she was still in her state of trance and would be raised from the dead. It was not until her body reached an advanced state of decay and it was clear there was no spark of life left that they allowed her body to be removed from the house where she died. At that point, the autopsy she had requested was carried out. The conclusions drawn, based on the medical examination, stated that she had gall stones but her body showed "no functional disorder or organic disease" but instead, suggested that "all the mischief lay in the brain, which was not examined, owing to the high state of putrefaction."
Joanna Southcott was finally laid to rest on Sunday, 1 January 1815, according to her directions, in an unmarked grave in the common area of the newly consecrated churchyard of St. John’s Wood Chapel. Throughout the funeral service, Joanna Southcott was referred to as "Mrs. Goddard," which was probably her married name. There were only four mourners present, in a effort to prevent this solemn event from being turned into a circus by those seeking to ridicule and denigrate Joanna Southcott and her beliefs. It was not until fourteen years later that a tablet to her memory was placed in the chapel.
A large number of Southcottians sustained Southcott’s memory for many years. In fact, in 1842, many of them gathered for her imminent resurrection, and the birth of Shiloh. When that did not happen, they were left to await the opening of her sealed box, which had come to be known as Southcott’s "Box of Sealed Prophecies." A box, purportedly Southcott’s box, was opened in 1927, though only one bishop deigned to be present. It was found to contain a number of hand-written documents, a few coins, a dice box, a lacy night cap, a pistol, a lottery ticket and a romance novel. Some versions of the tale say that the box was then given to the British Museum, which placed the documents in their Library and stored the box, but lost track of its whereabouts. However, there is some argument as to whether or not that was the box Southcott gave to her faithful follower. In fact, an entire book has been written about the tales of Joanna Southcott’s Box of Sealed Prophecies.
Two hundred years ago, this month, Joanna Southcott, prophetess, and potential mother of the second Messiah, passed from this earth, surrounded by a number of her most faithful followers. In her last days, she believed her life was nearing its end and was saddened to think that her strongly-held beliefs that she could save mankind from the devil and bring the son of God into the world again would come to nothing. She was considered deluded by many, yet she seems to have been quite sincere in her desire to fight evil and bring good into the world. Her philosophy was strongly pro-feminist, which may be one of the reasons she was considered deluded by many. But she inspired great loyalty in her followers, many of them women, and she was not forgotten after her death. In fact, a full century after her passing, other women took up her cause and the Panacea Society was founded by four very determined women. The last member of the Panacea Society passed away in 2012 and now the society survives solely as a charity. On balance, I think, despite her failure to bring forth the second Messiah, Joanna Southcott left behind a legacy which led to at least some good in the world for the past two centuries. Rest in Peace, Joanna.