In the year 1792, the Treaty of Jassy brought the war between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire to an end; Prussia declared war against France; Russia invaded Poland; France declared war against Austria, and Tipu Sultan of Mysore invaded Karala, in southwest India: in revolutionary France, La Marseillaise was composed by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle; the guillotine was employed for the first time; the Tuileries Palace was stormed, and the king arrested; angry mobs attacked and killed Roman Catholic bishops and priests; jewels from the French crown were stolen; a Proclamation of the abolition of the monarchy went into effect; the French First Republic was established, and Louis XVI was placed on trial: King Gustav III of Sweden was shot in the back while attending a midnight masquerade, dying from his wounds 13 days later; Tiradentes, a Brazilian revolutionary, was executed in Rio de Janiro, for conspiring against the occupying Portugese, and, in England, Thomas Paine was indicted for treason against the Crown, and outlawed in absentia: Robert Gray discovered the mouth of the Columbia River; Captain George Vancouver claimed Puget Sound for Great Britain, and the first Columbus Day was held in New York: in Japan, one of Mount Unzen’s lava domes collapsed, triggering a megatsunami, and killing almost 15,000 people; the cornerstone of the White House was laid, and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women was published.
In the same year, the Italian composer, Gioachino Rossini, was born, as was the English mathematician and astronomer, John Herschel, and the Romantic poet, atheist and revolutionary, Percy ‘Bysshe’ Shelley. Deaths included the painter, Joshua Reynolds, and the inventor, Richard Arkwright.
And it came to pass, also in the year 1792, the Lord of Hosts, God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth – Omnipotent, Omniscient and Omnipresent, having nothing better to do with His Time, decided to speak directly to a Devonshire farmer’s daughter, who went by the name of Joanna Southcott.
Born on April 25, 1750, in the hamlet of Talesford, and raised in the village of Gittisham, East Devon, Joanna grew up in a confirmed religious atmosphere, being obliged to read a chapter of the Bible every day, and then discuss it with her father. When she was 21, he became ill, and Joanna took charge of the farm. Once her father had recovered, she went into domestic service for five years at the house of an upholsterer in Exeter, where she also became skilled in the trade. She then went to work as a maid for a couple named Taylor. For 42 years Joanna lived a humdrum, deeply devout life, but in 1792, after joining the Wesleyans, and at the time of her menopause, she began to experience strange things.
In her own words, she was visited by a ‘voice’, which told her,”The Lord is awakened out of sleep. He will terribly shake the earth.” At first, Joanna thought she was being deluded by Satan, so she asked for a sign from God, and there came three raps on her bedstead – a precursor of the raps at nineteenth-century Spiritualist séances. Then suddenly she found her hand writing messages without conscious guidance. “The writing comes extremely fast, much faster than I could keep up by voluntary effort. I have to turn over the pages and guard the lines of writing from running into each other; but, except for this, I need not look at the paper. I can talk on other subjects while writing. The mass of the writings consists in teachings on Religion. Some messages, however, deal with earthly matters.” Thus it was she realised that God had indeed chosen her to be His Messenger on Earth, in the distinct form of the Woman of the Apocalypse – clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars. The fact that God had chosen a woman to fulfil His Divine Purpose suggests there was a kind of balancing act going on. After all, given it was Eve whose actions caused the original Fall from Grace, perhaps it was only right that Joanna should be the earthly vessel whereby Eve’s original sin was expiated.
Over the next few years, she made a number of prophecies concerning domestic affairs, most of which were vindicated. Rebuked by Methodists and Dissenters alike, she turned to the established Church – in the form of Reverend Joseph Pomeroy of St. Kew in Cornwall – to confirm her Godly sincerity. Pomeroy received her kindly, but warned her employers, “She will be out of her mind soon”. Joanna sent him a number of prophecies that were subsequently fulfilled, even though they were “bordering on blasphemy”. Undeterred, she travelled to London at the request of William Sharp, the engraver, and began selling ‘seals of the Lord’ – seals which ensured the holder would be elected to eternal life. The seals themselves were simple paper squares in envelope form, marked with a circle, and the words “The Seal of the Lord, the Elect and Precious, Man’s Redemption to Inherit the Tree of Life, to be made Heirs of God and Joint Heirs with Jesus Christ” written inside, and each marked with “I.C.” – Christ’s initials. Several thousand of these were sold, at prices varying from twelve shillings to a guinea. She also published sixty-five pamphlets-cum-books, and by way of a legacy from a disciple, she achieved financial independence in 1812. The following year, as her visions increased, she felt surrounded by angels.
Joanna was rather taken aback, though, when, at the age of sixty-four, her ‘voice’ commanded, “Order twelve gowns for thy wedding”. In early 1814, the ‘voice’ added, “This year in the sixty-fifth year of thy age thou shalt bear a son by the power of the Most High”. As the Bride of Christ, her child would have a divine destiny. In March 1814, she declared that Shiloh was her unborn child – the Prince of Peace, the expected Messiah, as referred to in Genesis 49:10. Extraordinarily, a leading surgeon and twenty other medical practitioners confirmed she was pregnant, and the news was received with great joy and amazement, as well as with gifts, from her followers. In order to provide Shiloh with a foster father, she married the Earl of Darnley’s steward, John Smith, in her bedroom, on November 12.
Although the birth was expected in July of 1814, by September nothing had happened. Joanna called her closest friends to her bedside, and told them, “Now it all appears delusion”. By December 16, the symptoms of pregnancy had disappeared, and she grew physically weaker. Perhaps realising that death was close, she asked her doctors to keep her body warm for four days after, in case she was in a trance. Early in the morning of December 27, she died, seemingly in great despair. After the four days had elapsed, her doctor and fourteen other medical practitioners examined her body, and found no organic disease other than a condition of dropsy – the swelling of soft tissues due to the accumulation of excess water.
Following her death, a large number of Southcottians refused to accept that her mission was delusional, or a trick of the Devil, and they continued to disseminate her works. Most significantly, they swore to protect what came to be known as Joanna Southcott’s Box, a sealed container of prophecies, with the instruction that it be opened only at a time of national crisis, and then only in the presence of all twenty-four bishops of the Church of England (there were only twenty-four at the time). For decades, notices appeared in British newspapers, stating, “War, disease, crime and banditry will increase until the Bishops open Joanna Southcott’s box”. In 1907, four women became chief propagandists of the movement – Alice Seymour, Rachel Fox, Helen Exeter, and Mabel Barltrop. Between them, they pestered clergymen and bishops, all with a view to opening the sealed container. Helen Exeter even declared that she, as the eighth prophet, was the reborn mother of Shiloh, and she adopted the name Octavia accordingly. A settlement was established at Bedford, and, following a supposed miracle in 1923, when Octavia proclaimed she’d been granted great healing powers, it (the Bedford community) adopted the name, the Panacea Society – so-called because it had a universal cure for the entire ills of the world. Notwithstanding her universal remedy, Octavia died in 1934.
However, in 1927, the box – or at least a box – was opened, by the psychical researcher, Harry Price. The sealed container had been left at his laboratory by someone claiming to be a descendant of one of Southcott’s closest companions, although whether this was true wasn’t checked. Either way, when, after much publicity, and in the presence of just one rather reluctant prelate (the suffragen Bishop of Grantham) the box was eventually opened, it was found to contain nothing of any import whatsoever: there were several popular pamphlets and books, a paper souvenir from 1814, a lottery ticket from 1796, a fob purse containing silver and copper coins, a horse pistol, a miniature case, an ivory dice cup, a bone puzzle, a woman’s embroidered nightcap, and a set of brass money weights – fifty-six objects in total. Noticeably absent were any of Joanna Southcott’s prophecies, correspondence, or religious pamphlets.
Unsurprisingly, members of the Panacea Society immediately denounced the entire enterprise, claiming the box was an obvious fake, and that the real box remained hidden away, presumably in its possession.
Since 1927, the followers of Joanna Southcott have tried to call the bishops together time and time again. Billboards have been hired, carrying the same slogan which appeared in the newspapers, and the message has even featured on the sides of city busses – thus far, all without success. Today, the Society is known as the Panacea Charitable Trust, and it runs the Panacea Museum at 9, Newnham Road, Bedford. In one of the plush Victorian rooms of the house, there’s even a replica of the box of revelations, unopened, just like the real thing – assuming it actually exists. Shiloh has yet to return, although, presumably, all Southcottians will be fully prepared for Him, when and if He does. In the meantime, it might be prudent to reflect on what constitutes crime, banditry, perplexity, and the distress of nations. Given the times we’re living in, perhaps now would be the perfect opportunity to open the box, as we knowingly lurch towards ecocide; as fascism gains the upper hand across the globe; as men and women of good repute find themselves traduced and denounced by compulsive liars and semi-literate charlatans; as Capitalism appears to be in decline; as indigenous peoples are murdered for protecting their environments; as proxy wars blur the lines between right and wrong – between which side is which; as all that’s recognisable as Progress appears to be under threat. And if not now, when?
It’s understandable that the bishops might be concerned, as regards their considerable reputations, should they appear to give credence – and therefore a kind of validity – to the power of the box. However, given their beliefs are, in essence, hardly further than a variation or two away from those expressed by Joanna Southcott, it seems somewhat churlish to ignore the pleas of the Panacea Trust. The worst that can happen is that the contents of the box prove beneficial – which is hardly the worst at all. On the other hand, they might simply turn out to be a profound disappointment, in which case nothing’s been lost anyway. In the meantime, the clock ticks, and ticks, and ticks…
Dafyd ap pedr