Posted on: December 1, 2011

  • In: Uncategorized

There’s been a lot of talk about religious soothsayers in recent times, particularly with American preacher Harold Camping featuring in the news with his two failed predictions that the world was coming to an abrupt end.  Of course this sort of thing is nothing new at all.  Self-styled religious prophets have been with us probably since religion was invented.  For some people it’s simply a convenient way to fleece the gullible of their hard-earned money, for others it’s all about power, their chance to be somebody and to exert control over others.  But there are some who simply get carried away with religious fervour.  One such person was Englishwoman Joanna Southcott.   Joanna is interesting because she made the startling claim that she was to be the mother of the Messiah!  It’s hard for a Monty Python fan to not immediately think of Terry Jones in ‘The Life Of Brian’, with his “he’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!”   And  Joanna was mentioned in an old Monty Python sketch, which referred, in a spoof game-show, to Joanna Southcott’s Box (I’ll get to that in a minute).

Joanna was a simple Devonshire girl by birth.  She was born in Gittisham, Devon, in April 1750.  Her father was a farmer, and Joanna started out working in the dairy on his farm.  Joanna showed excessive religious zeal from an early age, which unnerved her father.  When her mother died, he finally took the opportunity to get rid of her and sent her out to service.  After several years, she eventually wound up in Exeter, where she joined the local Wesleyan chapel.  She soon sent about annoying the Methodists too.  On Christmas Day 1791 she irritated them by announcing that she had arrived in their midst by “divine command”.  This must have gone down like a lead balloon.

By now Joanna was in her early 40s, and her religious fervour seemed to be dangerously increasing with the onset of middle-age.  At the Easter service she stood up in chapel and made announcements that were so startling that the Methodists basically told her to go home and have a nice lie-down.  Joanna went to stay with a married sister at Plymtree, and I can only assume that there she fell ill.  She said that over the course of 10 days she experienced the “powers of darkness”.  At the end of these 10 days Joanna proceeded to write down a series of predictions, all in rhyme (like a female Nostradamus) which had presumably come to her during her time of darkness.  I can’t imagine anybody was terribly grabbed by this, so to add some mystery to them Joanna had the badly-written prophecies sealed up, to only be unsealed once the dates of the predictions had passed.

A couple of years later Joanna became convinced that her prophecies were coming true, and started to pester local churchmen for recognition.  They must have regarded her as a complete madwoman.  Meanwhile Joanna still kept scribbling her prophecies, and then sealing them up.  Joanna’s thirst for recognition was about to be quenched though.  In 1801 she published her first book, ‘The Strange Effects Of Faith’.  It caught the eye of one Colonel Basil Bruce, whose father was a vicar in Wiltshire.  He was impressed by what he read, and encouraged various vicars of his acquaintance to read it too.  They visited her in Exeter, and must have been impressed, because they became her ardent disciples.

Joanna moved to London in 1802, and set herself up in residence at High House, Paddington.  Immediately followers began to flock to her.  Joanna (who seems to have had a positive mania for sealing up papers) would issue them with sealed certificates, proclaiming that they were now one of the 144,000 to be Saved.  For a few years all went well.  Joanna managed to issue an impressive 10,000 of these certificates, charging from 12 shillings to a guinea for each (although to be fair, I don’t think money was Joanna’s over-riding concern).  It all became a bit embarrassing though in 1809 when a convicted murderess called Mary Bateman, confessed on the scaffold that she was a certificate-holder too.

Undeterred Joanna carried on, and now began to set up chapels all over London.  It seems her services were fairly routine run-of-the-mill Christian services, but this didn’t stop various wealthy benefactors from seeking private audiences with Joanna, and paying for the privilege.  Eventually she spread her wings outside London, and also set up chapels in Salford, Leeds, and Stockton-on-Tees.  Even the suicide of a young helper (who jumped from Blackfriars Bridge believing the angels would save him) didn’t damage Joanna’s by-now fairly respectable reputation.

Joanna could have probably carried on this way for the rest of her life, and lived out her days as a respected religious adviser, one whom these days would probably be called a “lightworker”.  But Joanna wasn’t done with surprising people.  At the age of 64 she penned a book called ‘Third Book Of Wonders’, in which she announced that she was about to give birth to the new Messiah!  This must have been one heck of a showstopper for her followers.  In October 1813 Joanna shut herself away at home, in order to prepare for the “birth”, and would only see two trusted female helpers.  Joanna wrote to the press and leading churchmen, to tell them the glorious news.

Over the following months Joanna became very ill, but it wasn’t until August of 1814 that one of her female friends called in the doctors.  When examined, the doctors pronounced themselves baffled.  Joanna was exhibiting all the signs of being 4-months pregnant!  Of course this wasn’t possible.  By now Joanna was 65!

Her followers went berserk when they heard the news.  Great rejoicing broke out, and gifts poured in for Joanna, and the soon-to-be infant.  They were to be disappointed.  In November Joanna confided to Dr Richard Rees that she was in fact dying, (even though he said he could find nothing wrong with her), and that 4 days after her death he should open her body and examine her.  With meticulous conscientiousness Joanna ordered that all the generous gifts be returned to their givers.  In spite of her apparent lack of illness Joanna died on Boxing Day 1814.  It is thought that her followers hung onto her body for a while, in the hope that she would rise from the dead.  They finally let her go when she began to decay.

Her last wishes were obeyed, and an autopsy was performed.  Once again, nobody could find anything wrong with her.  It is assumed now that Joanna’s illness was purely psychological, she had  a phantom pregnancy, brought on by her overwhelming desire to be the mother of the new Messiah.  She was buried in St John Wood’s Cemetery.

That wasn’t the end of Joanna Southcott by any means.  Devotees of her formed a group called the Panacea Society, and in 1844 a lady bequeathed large sums of money so that Joanna’s works could be reprinted.  The Southcottians (as they are also known) claim there is a sealed box in existence, containing some of Joanna’s writings, which could only be unlocked by a gathering of 24 bishops of England and Wales.  They believed that once the box was unlocked all crime and distress would disappear from the land.  Needless to say this hasn’t happened.

Legendary psychic investigator Harry Price claimed to have opened a box belonging to Joanna, which contained nothing other than an old nightcap, a pistol and a Lottery ticket.  Joanna’s devoted followers claimed this wasn’t the real Box at all.  Where the real one is though, nobody knows.

Apparently Joanna had prophesied that the Day Of Judgement would come in 2004, well I’m sure I don’t need to point out that that doesn’t appear to have happened!  Like Harold Camping’s failed predictions, the world has simply chuntered on regardless.



© Sarah Hapgood and, 2011-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sarah Hapgood and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Sarah’s fiction on Kindle

Cover of Sarah Hapgood's 
Transylvanian Sky and other stories

A second collection of my short stories, Transylvanian Sky and other stories is now available for Amazon's Kindle, price £1.99. Also available on other Amazon sites.

Cover of Sarah Hapgood's 
B-Road Incident and other stories

A collection of 21 of my short stories, B-Road Incident and other stories is now available for Amazon's Kindle, price £1.15. Also available on other Amazon sites.

Sarah’s tweets

%d bloggers like this: