Today I want to tell you about Joanna Southcott. She was born in Devon some time in April of 1750. The official date of her death is December 27th 1814. Joanna was, during her lifetime, a prophetess with thousands of followers. Some continued to believe the things she foretold long after her death. Perhaps some still do.
In 1790 she was working in a draper’s shop in Exeter. Her employer was a Methodist and she spent a lot of time talking with the Methodist ministers who frequented the shop. They were impressed by her intelligence and she came to have a rather inflated sense of her own importance. Then one morning, whilst sweeping out the shop, she found on the floor, a seal with her own initials on it. She felt it was a sign from God. In fact, she came to believe that she was the woman spoken of in the Book of Revelation, who would give birth to the second Messiah. The Woman of the Apocalypse. The Book of Revelation comes right at the end of the New Testament. It describes what will happen at the end of days and is every bit as mad as Joanna was. Here is what it has to say about the Woman of the Apocalypse:
1. And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars:
2. And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.
3. And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.
4. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.
5. And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne.
6. And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.
She thought this gave her the authority to sell documents which were basically passports to heaven. The pieces of paper could be bought for anywhere between twelve shillings and a guinea and were folded and sealed. Anyone in possession of one would be one of the 144,000 spoken of in the Book of Revelation who would be saved. They would also reign on earth alongside Christ for a thousand years. Those without a seal would spend a thousand years in hell. The seals were bought as quickly as she could produce them and those who bought the seals were forbidden to open them. The less credulous people who opened the seals to find out what was inside, often found only a blank piece of paper. Her trade in seals rather tailed off though when one of her ‘elect’ was hanged at York for murder.
Things took an unusual turn when, at the age of sixty-four, Joanna announced that she was pregnant. Her thousands of followers became very excited and clubbed together to purchase an expensive cradle for the new Messiah. The announcement also brought all sorts of gifts for the miraculous baby from her chosen followers. Midwives fought for the privilege of being responsible for the delivery. The birth, Joanna predicted, would take place at midnight on October 19th 1814. The appointed hour came and went and no child appeared. The failure was accounted for by a lack of faith among her followers. Though some claimed that a child had been born and had ascended straight to heaven. Eventually, it became clear that Joanna was quite ill. She died, probably on December 27th 1814. This is not certain, as her followers kept her body for quite a long time after she died, believing that she would rise again. A post-mortem revealed that she had suffered from a condition called dropsy which had caused fluid to accumulate in her abdomen, giving her the outward appearance of pregnancy.
Joanna may not have left us a new Messiah but she did leave something else. She left a mysterious sealed box and strict instructions that it was only to be opened at a time of the nation’s direst need. The box could also only be opened in the presence of twenty-four bishops who had spent a fixed amount of time studying the writings and prophecies of Joanna Southcott beforehand. Although she still had many followers, there have never been twenty-four bishops willing to give credence to her claims.
In 1927 a psychic researcher called Harry Price was sent a mysterious box that allegedly had belonged to Joanna. He began by asking people who claimed to be mediums to guess what was inside. Documents were an obvious and fairly popular guess. He then had the box x-rayed and the images showed, among other things, books, coins, a dice box, a pair of earrings and a horse-pistol. Price did try quite hard to get some bishops to come and attend the actual opening of the box but no one was very interested. He did open it though, much to the consternation of Joanna’s remaining followers. The objects inside, as well as those mentioned included a lottery ticket and a piece of paper printed on the River Thames on February 3rd 1814. The books turned out to be romantic novels. Price found the objects to be of historical significance and concluded that they certainly had belonged to Joanna Southcott. Though had he not known it, he would never have guessed that they were the belongings of a prophetess. If you want to know more about the opening of the box and see one of the x-rays, you’ll find it here.
Her followers claimed that this was not the box that Joanna had meant and that they still had another box in their possession that contained the real secret. Around the time of the First World War, a group of them had got together and bought several properties in the town of Bedford. There, they collected all the gifts that had been given to Joanna for her expected miraculous child. They also prepared a room for the twenty-four bishops who would one day come to open the box. The last surviving member of the group died in 2012. Their box may be now lost somewhere in the depths of the British Museum.