If the English government had hoped that imprisoning Richard Brothers in an asylum would end his millenarian movement, they were sadly mistaken. Those followers who became disillusioned with Brothers and his prophecies quickly found a new prophet to take his place.
Or rather, a prophetess.
Born in Devonshire on April 4, 1750, Joanna Southcott was the fourth daughter of William and Hannah Southcott and showed no sign in her early childhood of her remarkable destiny. Although her family had once been very prosperous, Joanna grew up on a small farm and with very little education. She had little choice but to go into domestic service in the Devonshire area. Her employers would later describe her as being honest but prone to episodes of "melancholy" (depression). In her own writings, she would state that the "Spirit of Truth" first descended on her when she was eighteen but her mission in life didn't really begin until Joanna was forty-two.
There's no way to tell what her employers thought when Joanna announced to them that she was a "prophetess" and that the Lord had appeared to her to "warn her of what was coming upon the whole earth". As far as she was concerned, "higher powers" were using her to spread their divine word and Joanna began writing an elaborate series of prophecies, usually centered around war and destruction. Bundles of her prophecies were sent off to various clergymen and bishops who were urged to examine them. While most of the clergy ignored Joanna and her warnings, she attracted the interest of one vicar, James Pomeroy. As a successful preacher in Cornwall, Pomeroy seemed to give Southcott the attention that she craved. From 1796 to 1801, she besieged Pomeroy with her prophecies and demanded that he get her work examined by a clerical committee. Eventually, Pomeroy broke off the association when he realized that his involvement with her was exposing him to ridicule.
Since Pomeroy refused to deal with her any further and no other clerics had any interest in her prophecies, Joanna decided to publish her prophecies instead. In February, 1801, the first installment of her book, The Strange Effects of Faith was published with five additional installments being added over the next year. On the first page of the book, she issued the following challenge: "If any five ministers who are worthy and good men, will prove that these writings come from the Devil I will refrain from further printing. If they cannot I will go on." Her followers would trumpet that same challenge long after her death.
Although the five ministers she asked for didn't come forward, Joanna Southcott certainly attracted a diverse group of followers. After Richard Brothers was incarcerated, his disillusioned believers were quick to turn to this new religious leader. Among them were included three ministers and other prosperous members of society. After these followers took her existing prophecies with them to London, Joanna Southcott decided to safeguard her new prophecies in a way that added to her mystique. She decided to "seal" her prophecies with a special seal (including the initials "I.C" with two stars) and place them in a special container that was kept in the care of one of her followers. The legends surrounding the "Great Box" that contained her prophecies quickly took on a life of their own.
Her prophecies had a surprisingly feminist tone for that era. As a "daughter of Eve", she would challenge the Devil to mortal combat and "cast back upon him the guilt which women originally incurred by transmitting his temptation to man in Eden". As the chosen instrument for destroying Satan, Joanna would be the "Bride of the Lamb" who would usher in a new kingdom on Earth. By 1802, she began "sealing" her followers to be among the select few who would be saved. When one of her wealthy followers, Elias Carpenter, brought her a ream of paper from his mill, Southcott cut it into squares and inscribed each piece with a circle. Inside each circle, she wrote "The sealed 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." By 1807, she had distributed 14,000 of these squares to be among the 144,000 to be saved according to the Book of Revelation.
Her crusade continued for the rest of her life with continued challenges to the Church of England to examine her prophecies in detail. The sealing ensured that her followers stayed loyal to her despite other "prophets" launching similar crusades. This loyalty was put to the test in 1814 when 65-year old Joanna Southcott announced that she was pregnant "by the power of the Most High". According to one final vision, she had been chosen for a "virgin birth" and that her son would be "the Shiloh" who would redeem the world.
Although newspapers quickly denounced her as a "deluded, elderly virgin", her followers enthusiastically waited for the miraculous birth. They presented Joanna with an expensive crib made of satin wood and gold. When a team of physicians confirmed her pregnancy, she married one of her followers to avoid the scandal of being an unwed mother (James Pomeroy declined the honour). In December of that same year, Joanna reluctantly called her supporters to her bedside and confessed that "it all appears delusion". Her followers were devastated and rumours began that her son had been "snatched up into Heaven" to escape the dragon of Revelation. Joanna Southcott went into decline afterward and died on December 27.
Four days after Joanna Southcott's death, a team of physicians met for a post-mortem examination. Aside from gallstones, they found no evidence of medical problems or other abnormalities. In a signed statement, the doctors concluded that "We the undersigned, present at the dissection of Mrs. Joanna Southcott, do certify that no unnatural appearances were visible, and no part exhibited any appearance of disease sufficient to have occasioned her death, nor was there any appearance of her ever having been pregnant".
Despite her death, Joanna Southcott's movement lingered on. Although the number of her followers dwindled, legends of Joanna's "Great Box" and the hidden prophecies that she left behind were still common. She left instructions that the Box should only be opened in times of "national crisis" with a full gathering of the Church of England's bishops in attendance. After attempts by her followers to have the Church open the Box during the Crimean War and World War I, it was finally opened in 1927 (only one prelate agreed to attend). The only contents of the Box were some "oddments and unimportant papers" including a lottery ticket. That didn't deter some of the followers though (they insisted it was the wrong box).
While rumours of the Great Box still crop up in the news from time to time, most of Joanna Southcott's prophecies are available online. Among them is a memorable prediction that the world would end in 2004 (Sadly, she didn't see the 2012 movement coming. If she had added another eight years to her prophecy, she might have earned herself a new generation of believers). Her story continues to be a fascinating example of religious mania and the persistence of belief.
Her sad ending hardly deterred other would-be prophets however. More on that next week.