Southcott, Joanna (1750–1814)
Southcott, Joanna (1750–1814)
English prophet and sectarian who believed that the Holy Spirit spoke through her and promised the imminent end of the world and Christ's Second Coming. Born in Tarford, Devonshire, England, in 1750; died in London on December 27, 1814; daughter of William Southcott and Hannah Southcott; received no formal education; never married; no children.
Was a domestic servant until the age of 42, then a prophet, writer inspired by the Holy Spirit, preacher, and interpreter; moved to London (1802); toured the English provinces, preaching.
Joanna Southcott was a poor servant girl from the southwest of England who, at the age of 42, announced that God had chosen her as a messenger of his Second Coming. She began to write prophecies and published 65 books filled with them between 1801 and her death in 1814. Thousands of English men and women, rich and poor alike, followed her, and believed in 1814 that she was about to give birth to the Messiah through a miraculous Virgin Birth, and would name him Shiloh. She gave every sign of imminent maternity but died and was found to have had no more than a phantom pregnancy. She was the most famous millenarian prophet of her era and still has followers up to the present.
Her father, a tenant farmer, claimed to be descended from nobler folk and passed on to his daughter a sense of her dignity and a tendency to perceive slights from anyone who doubted her supernatural claims. The family were churchgoers and read the Bible regularly, giving Joanna a sense of her own sinfulness and unworthiness before God. Her remarks on her mother's death, while she was in her teens, are characteristic. "My mother's death sank deep into my heart. Since that, I may say I have been desirous to Live in the Knowledge of the Lord but to my Shame I can reproach myself I have forgot Him days without number and am an unworthy object of His loving kindness." She had a limited education, could read and write, but appears to have read few books beyond the Bible, a collection of an aunt's poems, and a history of the Turkish Empire, which seemed to her to hold clues to prophetic interpretation.
As a young servant girl, Southcott was courted by a succession of eligible young men, farmers, shopkeepers and even a young squire, but, after being tempted to accept each offer of marriage, she turned back to her intensifying religious life. Throughout her youth and early middle age, she worked first as a cook and then as an upholsterer's assistant, opening a shop of her own in 1790. Two years later, she had her first religious vision, of men and horses flying through the air and fighting one another. She also saw hosts of angels and a vision of the beautiful Holy Spirit commanding her:
All of a sudden the Spirit entered in me with such power and fury, that my senses seemed lost; I felt as though I had power to shake the house down, and yet I felt as though I could walk in air, at the time the Spirit remained in me; but did not remember many words I said, as they were delivered with such fury that took my senses; but as soon as the Spirit had left me, I grew weak as before.
She became convinced that she was the woman described in the Biblical book of Revelation, "a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars." In the following years, she also began to deliver prophecies about the prospects of the forthcoming harvest and the welfare of local dignitaries, including an Anglican bishop whose death she accurately foretold. The harvest predictions were often right too, leading some people to conclude that she was a witch, while others countered that she was blessed with divine foresight and was a protection against witchcraft. She certainly believed in the reality of witchcraft and although she favored the Bible over astrology she did believe that planets could create a good or bad influence, and that "there is a world in the moon and in that world Satan dwells."
Southcott was popular among poor people because of her outspoken denunciation of rich landowners who took advantage of popular hunger by hoarding grain until the prices rose during the economic upheavals of the French Revolutionary era. Speaking as God's mouthpiece at a time when such words risked prosecution for sedition, she declared that "my charges will come heavy against them and my judgments must be great in the land if they starve the poor in the midst of plenty." She compared "the shepherds of England" with "Ninevah, Sodom and Gomorrah." The wealth of the Anglican hierarchy, some of whom were major landowners in their own right, also set her against them.
Critics, of whom she always had many, charged that Joanna Southcott was an illiterate fraud. She countered by writing down and sealing her prophecies before witnesses, permitting them to be opened after they had been confirmed in reality. She made no claim to being their author. Rather, she said, the Spirit possessed her, and she was merely the instrument through which they were put down on paper, often in the form of doggerel verse. Her writing was awkward and ungrammatical, and eventually she switched to "dictating" the revelations of the Spirit to a more literate secretary, but she insisted that she had no control over where or when the inspiration to write would come over her. Some of these revelations praised Southcott herself, such as the verse in which she wrote:
For on earth there's something new appears
Since Earth's foundation plac'd I tell you here
Such wondrous woman never was below.
In 1801, she took her savings of £100 to a printer in the Devonshire city of Exeter and asked him to print a collection of these prophecies, under the title The Strange Effects of Faith. The publication caused a sensation in the region and enabled her fame to spread more widely, into other parts of England. She moved the following year to London and continued her outpouring of pamphlets, books, and predictions, explaining Daniel and Revelation, denouncing atheists like Thomas Paine, and promising salvation and Heaven for all believers.
These were the years of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Several historians who have studied Southcott's life think she may have been inspired by the dramatic political upheavals of her age. It is certainly striking that her first revelation came at the same time as the French Revolutionary terror, and that many of her invocations of Revelation had the same mood as William Blake's or those of his prophet-contemporary Richard Brothers, whom many of her own followers had admired. She was one of many contemporaries who thought that the Beast named in Revelation was none other than Napoleon, and that she was now witnessing the last days in the history of the world, preparing for the return of Jesus. She reassured the civil authorities, who suspected her of sedition, that her followers would fight in defense of England if it were invaded by France and that she was totally opposed to the French Revolution. The revolution against Satan, not against monarchy, was the one she preached, and she had no objection to a stratified society so long as the superiors recognized their duty towards the poorer sort.
She began giving to her followers, who named themselves "Johannas" or "Southcottians," papers closed with a red seal which promised that they would "inherit the Tree of Life to be made Heirs of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ." A trade in these sealed papers soon developed which, as one historian has noted, is comparable to the medieval trade in holy relics. Many holders of them believed that they were guarantees of immortality, a point which Southcott had to discourage. "I exhorted them," she said of her followers, "to be Steadfast in the faith. Hoping if they lived to the coming of the Lord that they would be waiting like the Wise Virgins to enter in with the bridegroom … but if they died before the time I hoped they would come with the Lord in Glory."
Joanna's confusion of her identity with that of a biblical figure, the Woman of Revelation, was a reflection not only of her own neurotic sensibilities but also of the disturbed international scene, which encouraged her belief that the world had entered the last days and that all the extraordinary characters of the prophetic books must soon be making their appearance.
—James K. Hopkins
Among her critics was the poet Robert Southey who saw her as a simple-witted woman being manipulated by unscrupulous followers. He was horrified by the popular enthusiasm for Southcott and told a friend that "had she been sent to Bedlam [a lunatic asylum] ten years ago, how many hundred persons would have been preserved from this infectious and disgraceful insanity." Also critical were the Calvinist Methodist leaders who had drawn Southcott's fire for preaching about the threat of Hell rather than about God's infinite love and forgiveness, and the scornful Anglicans who denied her supernatural gifts. She had attended Methodist and Anglican services for a while in 1790s but now rejected both as unauthentic, and her followers began to build chapels of their own. Enthusiastic worship gatherings often brought together a thousand or more followers, who were buoyed by Southcott's preaching of universal salvation.
In 1804, there were rumors of a French invasion, and Joanna foresaw that "Nine parts of the Inhabitants of London will perish, as the streets will be filled with dead Bodies, French as well as English." This prophecy never came true. Shortly thereafter, she asked for a "trial" in London to quiet allegations that she was a fraud, a point about which she was always sensitive, and about which she questioned herself frequently and closely. Many of her old Exeter neighbors and friends were called to testify to her blameless life and good character, and several of the middle- and upper-class women and men in her movement also defended her claims. Among them were the aristocratic Reverend Thomas P. Foley, a wealthy widow named Jane Townley , and Townley's companion Ann Underwood . Surviving lists drawn up at the time show that two thirds of all Southcottians were women, and that the strongholds of the movement were the southwest, London, and the industrial areas of Lancashire and Yorkshire in the north of England, with domestic servants being particularly enthusiastic participants. Southcott spent long periods living with Jane Townley and Ann Underwood who acted as her secretaries and scribes and freed her from all material want.
In 1813, in her Third Book of Wonders, Southcott announced that she was going to give birth to "Shiloh," the "second Christ." She claimed to have known this since 1794 but only now to have fully understood that she, like Mary the Virgin , was to give birth to the Messiah. She was then 63 years old but, showing every sign of pregnancy, went into seclusion and prepared for the great event. A prominent doctor, Joseph Adams, visited her and said that she was indeed about to give birth, and 17 of the 21 physicians who examined her came to the same conclusion. Friends said they felt the baby kicking. Wealthier followers contributed a carved and gilded crib worth £200 and other gifts to the forthcoming child. Southcott was even offered a large house by London's Green Park for the delivery. Newspaper correspondents discussed the obstetrical, religious, and moral aspects of the case while awaiting its outcome, and several impostors, posing as Joanna Southcott, tried to raise money for themselves. Rumors that she was about to give birth to an illegitimate child by one of her followers also circulated and one day "there was a great riot … before Joanna's house, and they threw violently many stones and brickbats gainst the house and doors and they, the inhabitants, were much alarmed."
The expected date of delivery came and went, three more months passed, in which Southcott's health declined rapidly, pain forced her to take opium for relief, and she died on December 27, 1814. She had given strict instructions that no autopsy should be attempted for four days after her death, apparently believing that the child could live on inside her for that time. When an autopsy was performed it showed that the pregnancy had been delusional. The absence of the child led at once to a rumor among her closest followers that the child had been born secretly, or perhaps spiritually, and was even now transforming the world, an idea given added weight by the fact that the "American War" (i.e. the War of 1812) came to an end on the day of Southcott's death.
Different groups of followers began to observe different rituals, according to their own divine message, and many of her former followers saw themselves as the next prophet. "One group ended a prayer meeting by letting loose a small black pig, which they attacked with knives and sticks until they killed it. They then burned it and scattered the ashes on their heads." Another group, following Southcott's friend George Turner, believed his prediction that the world would end on January 28, 1817. They gave away or destroyed all their possessions as the great day approached, and Turner himself was so dismayed at the failure of his prophecy that he descended into madness and died five years later. These disciples of Southcott endured frequent disappointments in the following years, but sects have persisted up to the present, including the House of David in America and the Panacea Society in Bedford, England.
Balleine, G.R. Past Finding Out: The Tragic Story of Joanna Southcott and Her Successors. London: S.P.C.K., 1956.
Hopkins, James K. A Woman to Deliver Her People: Joanna Southcott and English Millenarianism in an Era of Revolution. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1982.
Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. NY: Vintage, 1966.
Wright, Eugene Patrick. A Catalogue of the Joanna Southcott Collection at the University of Texas. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1968.
Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia