Joanna Southcott

This advertisement appeared in The Illustrated London News in 1968 (hat tip: Ron Good). Who is Joanna Southcott, and what might be in her box? The indispensable Wikipedia tells us that:

Joanna Southcott (or Southcote) (April 1750 – 27 December 1814) was a self-described religious prophetess. She was born in the English hamlet of Taleford, baptised at Ottery St Mary, and raised in the village of Gittisham, all in Devon, England.

Originally of the Church of England, in about 1792 she joined the Wesleyans in Exeter. Becoming persuaded that she possessed supernatural gifts, she wrote and dictated prophecies in rhyme, and then announced herself as the Woman of the Apocalypse spoken of in a prophetic passage of the Revelation (12:1–6).

Coming to London at the request of William Sharp, the engraver, Southcott began selling paper “seals of the Lord” at prices varying from twelve shillings to a guinea. The seals were supposed to ensure the holders’ places among the 144,000 people who would be elected to eternal life.

At the age of 64, Southcott affirmed that she was pregnant and would be delivered of the new Messiah, the Shiloh of Genesis (49:10). The date of 19 October 1814 was that fixed for the birth, but Shiloh failed to appear, and it was given out that she was in a trance.

Southcott died not long after. The official date of death was given as 27 December 1814, but it is likely that she died the previous day, as her followers retained her body for some time in the belief that she would be raised from the dead. They agreed to its burial only after it began to decay.

Her followers are said to have numbered over 100,000 at the time of her death. As for her box:

Southcott left a sealed wooden box of prophecies, usually known as Joanna Southcott’s Box, with the instruction that it be opened only at a time of national crisis, and then only in the presence of all 24 bishops of the Church of England (there were only 24 at the time), who were to spend a fixed period of time beforehand studying Southcott’s prophecies. Attempts were made to persuade the episcopate to open it during the Crimean War and again during the First World War. In 1927, the psychic researcher Harry Price claimed that he had come into possession of the box and arranged to have it opened in the presence of one reluctant prelate, the suffragan Bishop of Grantham. It was found to contain only a few oddments and unimportant papers, among them a lottery ticket and a horse-pistol. Price’s claims to have had the true box have been disputed by historians and by followers of Southcott.

Southcottians claimed that the box opened in 1927 was not the authentic one and continued to press for the true box to be opened. An advertising campaign on billboards and in British national newspapers such as the Sunday Express was run in the 1960s and 1970s by one prominent group of Southcottians, the Panacea Society in Bedford (formed 1920), to try to persuade the twenty-four bishops to have the box opened. According to the Society, the true box is in their possession at a secret location for safekeeping, with its whereabouts to be disclosed only when a bishops’ meeting has been arranged. Southcott prophesied that the Day of Judgement would come in the year 2004, and her followers stated that if the contents of the box had not been studied beforehand, the world would have had to meet it unprepared.

The Panacea Society was founded by a “clergyman’s widow, Mabel Barltrop, who declared herself the ‘daughter of God’, took the name Octavia and believed herself to be the Shiloh of Southcott’s prophecies. She and twelve apostles founded the Society, originally called the Community of the Holy Ghost.” It really was a community – some seventy members lived at its building on Albany Street in Bedford in the 1930s. According to BBC Travel, it was:

Dominated by single women in their 40s, 50s and 60s, [who] sent squares of linen that they claimed would heal any affliction to more than 120,000 believers worldwide….

These women were unable or unwilling to keep up with a period of intense social change, according to museum manager Gemma Papineau. “They had the mentality of scared people trying to protect themselves,” she said. “They built high walls around their campus, locked themselves inside it and made sure that everyone living with them believed exactly the same as them.”

The Panaceans were mostly conservative, right-wing, Christian ‘spinsters’, raised in the Victorian era and excluded from positions of authority within the church and in their lives. Part of the reason they fell in love with Joanna Southcott’s story, perhaps, was because of the power it granted to an ageing, childless, single woman. They went so far as to configure the Christian Trinity as a square, with Octavia as the Daughter of God. Just as Eve had first brought sin into the world, they believed, it was up to a woman to erase it – and provide mankind’s ultimate redemption.

Alas, the number of members dwindled over the years and the last one died in 2012. With that, the society’s assets were transferred to the Panacea Charitable Trust, which exists to promote research into millenarian movements and to help relieve poverty in the Bedford area. It also operates the Panacea Museum, which is devoted to the society.

What about the box? If you’re really interested, a replica box is on display at the museum, and a book by Frances Brown can tell you more:

If the name of Joanna Southcott strikes a chord today, it is usually in connection with her famous Box of Sealed Prophecies. But, if asked what that Box is, some will assure you that it contains the secrets of the second coming, while others say that it holds nothing more significant than a woman’s lacy night cap and a pistol. As to where the Box is now, some repeat that it was opened in 1927 in Westminster Hall and that it is now housed in the Harry Price Library in London. Others have suggested that its contents are in the British Library, while the Box itself languishes in a cellar of the British Museum. Still others maintain that the Box no longer exists – if, indeed, it ever did.

The truth is far simpler yet in some ways more mysterious. The Box does exist. The author has seen and examined it. There has been an unbroken chain of custodians from Joanna’s day to this, and the present guardians of the Box take their responsibilities every bit as seriously as their predecessors. Moreover, all the evidence suggests that Joanna Southcott’s Box has not been opened for at least a hundred and fifty years and that it contains prophecies which have been kept with their seals intact ever since her death.

This book, by establishing the provenance of the Box, dispels the falsehoods that have blurred its history. Joanna Southcott’s Box of Sealed Prophecies is locked, nailed and corded, its contents still awaiting examination.

Both Joanna Southcott and the Panacea Society sound very interesting and well worth further research. (Were they really a bunch of conservative spinsters, afraid of social change? The unconventionality of their faith would suggest otherwise.) Southcott herself reminds me of Hildegard of Bingen, Brigitte of Sweden, or Julian of Norwich – medieval women who received inspired messages, but of whom the Church had a great deal of suspicion. A website dedicated to reprinting Southcott’s writings may be found at joannasouthcott.com; judge for yourself if she was heretical. 

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