Life & Soul Life and Soul

Heretic of the week: Joanna Southcott

Joanna Southcott (1750-1814) was born in Devon to a small farming family. She went into service at a gentleman’s house in Exeter and worked there for some time, until a fellow servant began to make unwanted advances; she refused him – and the footman in turn claimed that she was “growing mad”, and had her dismissed. But was she unbalanced?

In 1792 she left the Church of England and joined the Wesleyans. She then began prophesying various things – all in rhyme – and then, having declared herself to be the “Woman of the Apocalypse”, moved to London. There she continued to proclaim all sorts of exciting things; then, having turned 64, she declared that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit, and on October 19, 1814, would give birth to the Messiah, whom she named Shiloh.

Unfortunately, the day came and went with no birth, and Joanna died on December 26, leaving behind a band of about 100,000 frustrated followers and a sealed box. Her will declared that the box was filled with important end-time prophecies and was only to be opened in the presence of all 24 bishops of the CofE.

Although their numbers dwindled, the Southcottians soldiered on. A number of them formed the Panacea Society in Bedford in 1920. These ladies hailed their leader, Mabel Barltrop, as Shiloh (to whom Joanna was to have given birth), and as Octavia, the Divine Daughter of God. Meanwhile, having somehow acquired the box, the Community of the Holy Ghost, as they called themselves, continually urged the bishops to open it.

Despite these appeals, their Lordships have not to date done so. After the last of the ladies died in 2012, the group’s assets were reorganised as the Panacea Charitable Trust. Among other things, the trust keeps the box safe until such time as the bishops are ready to attend to it and thereby save the world.