A Miraculous (and Local!) Bible

Courtesy Paul Halsall, I learned an interesting new word today: “myroblyte,” which is Greek and derives from myron (“sweet oil”) and bluzo (“to gush forth”). So something “myroblytic” exudes oil, and it is a miraculous property sometimes observed in icons or relics. Unbeknownst to me, in Dalton, Georgia these past few years a ministry calling itself His Name is Flowing Oil has claimed to be in the possession of a miraculously myroblitic Bible. In the week after Trump’s inauguration, a Bible belonging to one Jerry Pearce started to produce oil, starting with a small smudge in Psalm 39 and eventually saturating the entire book. Pearce put it in a plastic bag, and then in a glass container, in order to prevent the ever-flowing oil from soaking everything around it. Word spread quickly, and people flocked to Dalton in order to join a worship service, held in Dalton’s Wink Theater, during which the Bible would be brought out and laid on people’s heads. People claimed that they received cures or felt God’s presence in a special way; they could also leave with samples of the oil, and eventually the ministry gave away some 350,000 vials of it, totaling 400 gallons. Church leaders took the Bible on tour throughout the United States and even to Canada, although it only produced oil when it was in Dalton. 

Does that last fact make you suspicious? It should! The day after the Chattanooga Times Free Press published an article about the miraculous Bible last November, the paper received a telephone call to say that Pearce was a regular customer at the Tractor Supply store in Dalton, where he was seen buying large amounts of mineral oil. Tests carried out at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga confirmed that the allegedly miraculous oil was indeed indistinguishable from the Ideal brand of mineral oil sold at Tractor Supply. The Times Free Press published their findings last month; in the wake of the article, the ministry announced that the Bible had stopped producing oil and that they were ceasing operations, although they continued to defend their work. Ministry leader Johnny Taylor claimed that the Bible was “just a sign and a wonder… but it’s your faith and it’s how you apply it and use it where the miracles come in. We tell people the Bible is not the move, it’s just the sign and the wonder, but if you go find out where the Bible is, there’s a move going on there.” So (they claimed) they were only using it to advertise the “move,” although that doesn’t quite explain the cures attributed to the oil, or the vials of oil that the ministry gave away to its worshipers. (Note though that they weren’t selling them.)

What I find interesting about this episode is how it is an example of how tradition abides. You can say that oil is biblical, but the miraculous secretion of it strikes me as very Catholic indeed, and not something that Protestants would go in for – like receiving the stigmata or using holy water for exorcisms. But tactile ritual, especially involving the miraculous, is psychologically very satisfying, and no matter how often we disparage it as “superstitious,” it always seems to find a way back. Reinhardt’s Wayne Glowka told me about the Catholic custom of burying a statue of St. Joseph in your yard if you want to sell your house, something that two of his Baptist neighbors in Milledgeville did. Note too the evangelical support for Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, which was essentially an over-the-top RC meditation on the Stations of the Cross, i.e not something that Protestants usually do.

Although I suppose that the specifically Protestant ingredient here is the Bible – there are no myroblytic relics or icons in this story. 

UPDATE: See also “The Bible that Oozed Oil” by Ruth Graham at Slate

Backmasking

Another stroll down memory lane courtesy Atlas Obscura (although the article appeared some time ago now):

The Fight to Save America From Satan’s Subliminal Rock Messages

On April 27, 1982, members of the California Assembly’s Consumer Protection and Toxics Committee gathered in Sacramento to hear Robert Plant endorse Satan. This was not a straightforward testimonial. For one thing, the Led Zeppelin frontman wasn’t actually in attendance. Also, his pro-devil paeans could only be heard when you played “Stairway to Heaven” backwards.

After circulating pamphlets with the “backward masked” declarations spelled out, that’s precisely what Assemblyman Phillip Wyman and panel witness William H. Yarroll II did. The relevant portion of the eight-minute classic was first played forward for committee members and then reversed. Here’s what Wyman claimed could be heard: “I sing because I live with Satan. The Lord turns me off. There’s no escaping it. Here’s to my sweet Satan.” Yarroll, who identified himself as a “neuroscientist,” noted that a teenager need only listen to “Stairway to Heaven” three times before these backward messages were “stored as truth.”

It wasn’t just Plant reverse-singing Satan’s praises, either. According to Yarroll, bands ranging from Styx to the Beatles also had secret backmasked messages hidden in their music—messages that, in the words of legislative proposal A.B. 3741, had the power to “manipulate our behavior without our knowledge or consent and turn us into disciples of the Antichrist.”

As the bill’s sponsor, Wyman wanted mandatory warning labels on all rock albums containing these morally dubious backward messages. “Suppose young people have heard ‘Stairway to Heaven’ two or three hundred times and there has been implanted in their subconscious mind pro satanic messages or incantations?” he told Terry Drinkwater the following day on a CBS Evening News segment. Indeed, this was the truly insidious part of backmasking. Even though you had to play records in reverse to decipher the occultic messages, they could still subliminally imprint themselves upon young teen minds when played in the standard direction.

During the same news segment, Yarroll described how the brain unscrambles a backward masked message: “We have it stored in the unconscious as a truth image,” he said, “and as the creative unconscious side of the brain does, it goes through scanning the unconscious brain to go about and bring those truth images to the surface and make them reality for us.”

After calling the issue “exciting and interesting,” committee chairman Sally Tanner (D-El Monte) delayed an official vote until the music industry and band members could weigh in on the matter. That day never came. But the national panic surrounding subliminal satanic messages in rock music was about to reach fever pitch.

In the early ’70s, backmasking—or the practice of recording vocals and instruments backwards and then reinserting them into the forward mix of a song—was something a music savvy (and possibly stoned) Beatles fan might bring up. A decade later, it had become a cause célèbre for conservative religious leaders, school teachers, parents, and even politicians. Whether it was the reversed voice of Freddie Mercury declaring “it’s fun to smoke marijuana” on “Another One Bites the Dust” or Styx imploring Satan to “move through our voices” on “Snowblind,” there seemed to be mounting evidence that rock music was literally becoming a mouthpiece for the devil.

Believers held record-smashing parties, appeared on popular TV talk shows, wrote books, formed watchdog groups, and, perhaps most importantly, called their government representatives to warn them.

By 1982, state and federal legislation was being introduced at a steady clip to combat rock and roll’s hidden satanic agenda. Two weeks after the California Assembly hearing in Sacramento, California congressman Robert Dornan introduced H.R. 6363 to the House. Also known as the “Phonograph Record Backward Masking Labeling Act,” the bill aimed to do the same thing as Wyman’s A.B. 3741, only on a national level. 

While it would ultimately be shuffled off to the Subcommittee on Commerce, Transportation and Tourism to die, other bills—including one in Arkansas a year later—were passed unanimously by both house and senate members (then-Governor Bill Clinton ultimately vetoed that one).

For its own part, the music industry responded with a bemused skepticism. Styx’s James Young called the whole idea of satanic backmasking a hoax perpetrated by religious zealots, and refused to attend any meeting or hearing where the topic was discussed. Then there was Bob Garcia of A&M Records, who declared, “it must be the devil putting these messages on the records because no one here knows how to do it.” A spokesman for Led Zeppelin’s record label, Swan Song Records, issued just one statement in response to the “Stairway to Heaven” satanic allegations: “Our turntables only rotate in one direction.”

Taken as a whole, these reactions only stoked the righteous (and possibly entrepreneurial) fires of religious leaders like pastor Gary Greenwald, who started holding backmasking seminars all over the country. Soon, books like Backward Masking UnmaskedDancing With Demonsand The Devil’s Disciples: The Truth About Rock, were exposing “the sinister nature of rock and roll music,” while watchdog organizations like Parents Against Subliminal Seduction (P.A.S.S.) tried to block rock concerts at various venues.

The problem, as you may have already guessed, was that the whole thing was a bunch of diabolical tihsllub.

Canada and the United States have different traditions regarding the separation of church and state. The divide between French and English Canada was, historically, religious as well as linguistic, with French Canadians clinging tenaciously to their Catholicism, and most English Canadians fervently Protestant (for instance, at one point one needed to be a member of the Orange Order to get anywhere in Toronto politics). Canada West (the future province of Ontario) did disestablish the Anglican Church in the 1840s, but still recognized religion in a way that is forbidden in the United States. Thus, in the negotiations leading up to Confederation in 1867, Canada West agreed to fund Roman Catholic education, as a concession to Quebec. So to this day Ontario actually runs two parallel school systems, the public school system and the “separate” (RC) school system. I suppose the idea was that the public schools would in fact be “Protestant” schools in contrast to the separate schools, and I recall a certain amount of religious content from my days as a public school student in Port Hope, Ontario, including:

• the Lord’s Prayer (and occasionally Bible readings and hymns) as part of the day’s opening exercises

• Christmas and Easter pageants, with religious content (carols, prayers, nativity scenes, etc.)

• a representative of the Gideons coming in and handing out bibles to us, with the principal giving a short speech beforehand, not about how “you don’t need to believe this if you don’t want to,” but about how it was a special occasion, since we were now old enough to be entrusted with holy scripture

In middle school, we had a half-hour of religious instruction per week from one of the ministers of one of the churches in town. You could be excused from this if your parents felt strongly enough about it, and the ministers weren’t allowed to proselytize as such – instead, their remit was to teach about the “Judeo-Christian tradition.” But the Pentecostal minister that our class got put the fear of God in us in other ways. It was from him that I learned about the supercomputer in Brussels nicknamed The Beast, with everyone’s name in it, that will track all buying and selling, with the aid of invisible tattoos on the right hand or forehead – just like the prophesied Beast of Revelation 13! (This urban legend, I have discovered, actually has a discernible origin in a novel by author Joe Musser.) The year was 1983, so of course he also solemnly warned us about backmasking, that is, backwards messages in the music that we listened to, but which your brain had the ability to pick up and understand beneath conscious notice. These messages instructed you to kill yourself, take drugs, etc., and the scary thing is that the bands weren’t putting these messages on themselves, but “some force” was doing it! That force had to be Satan, because before his fall Satan was a master of music in heaven, and that “inversion” (hanging crosses upside-down, saying the Lord’s Prayer backwards) was a feature of current satanic ritual. Pastor’s message, though, did not have much of an effect on my musical listening habits, if only because a lot of what he played for us didn’t seem to say much at all. Was it really “worship Satan,” or just “zhoop zhip stanna”?

I was pleased to read this section of the article, about the origins of the notion of “subliminal persuasion.” I remember this one too:

A drive-in movie theater in Fort Lee, New Jersey just happened to provide a perfect junk science laboratory. Over the course of six weeks in 1957, unsuspecting filmgoers were the subjects of a grand marketing experiment. Using a special high-speed projector, researcher and social psychologist James Vicary inserted the words “drink Coke” and “eat popcorn” into movies that summer. Invisible to the human eye, each message lasted for 1/3,000th of a second and was repeated in five-second intervals during films on alternating nights.

By the end of the six weeks, Vicary claimed 45,699 people had been subjected to his subliminal inducements. He also claimed that popcorn and Coke sales went up 57.5 and 18.1 percent, respectively. At a press conference held later that same year, Vicary described the results of this now infamous study to help boost interest in his new “Subliminal Projection Company,” an attempt to commercialize what he called a major breakthrough in subliminal advertising. The public and press went bonkers, and not in a good way.

The first sentence of an influential op-ed responding to the press conference by journalist Norman Cousins read: “Welcome to 1984.” He, like many others, wondered what such a technology could mean not just for advertisers who wanted to sell us stuff, but also for governments seeking to steer public sentiment.

For its own part, the FCC almost immediately threatened to suspend the broadcast license of any company that dared use Vicary’s machine. In the years following the experiment, the CIA started looking into the “operational potential of subliminal perception” (they found it “exceedingly limited”), and authors like Wilson Bryan Key began cranking out books such as Subliminal Seduction, which claimed that sexual images (and the actual word “sex”) were being hidden in hundreds of ads.  

But when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation tried to replicate Vicary’s claims by subliminally flashing the message “Call now” during a popular Sunday night program, there was no increase in phone calls. The station later told viewers they had inserted a message and asked them to guess what it might have been. Almost half of the roughly 500 viewers claimed to have been made hungry or thirsty during the show, which aired during dinner time.

Vicary’s study was clearly on the public’s mind, which was problematic because it was completely made up. From the beginning, Vicary refused to release key details about his study. Not only was there never any independent evidence to support his claims about the effectiveness of subliminal advertising, years later, Vicary admitted he had done only enough research to file a patent for his machine, and actually had collected barely any data. Even worse, his machine didn’t seem to work half the time once people did try to test it.

Of course, none of that mattered by the late ’70s and early ’80s. Subliminal messaging was being used in self-help tapes, in department store Muzak to ward off shoplifters, and, if you believed Key, to sell the American public lots and lots of booze and cigarettes.

It’s amazing what social science research gets out into the public consciousness and causes concern, although I suppose that “you’re being manipulated and you don’t even know it!” might be especially alarming to people. But I’m not surprised, after all these years, to read that the experiment wasn’t replicable – this is the fate of a lot of psychological research, unfortunately. And as far as “hidden persuasion” goes, why not focus on what actually is out there in plain sight? Advertisers use all sorts of non-subliminal techniques to get you to behave in certain ways. Learning about those, so as to realize what’s going on, is always useful – much more than trying to discern any secret hidden messages. Backmasking seems even less plausible – does the mind really have the ability to turn words around subconsciously, and then to obey what you’ve “heard”? Again, why not focus on the actual lyrics and image that rock bands project? Some 1980s heavy metal bands flirted openly with Satanic imagery, and I didn’t like that, but even at the time it seemed to be mostly an act, calculated to offend the squares. 

The Myth of Medieval Paganism

From First Things, confirmation of one of my opinions (hat tip: Paul Halsall):

When we encounter “pagan-­seeming” images or practices in ­medieval Christianity, we should consider the probability that they were simply expressions of popular Christianity before positing the existence of secret pagan cults in ­medieval Western Europe. Once we accept that most culturally alien practices in popular Christianity were products of imperfectly catechized Christian cultures rather than pockets of pagan resistance, we can begin to ask the interesting questions about why popular Christianity developed in the ways it did. Rejecting the myth of the pagan Middle Ages opens up the vista of medieval popular Christianity in all its inventiveness and eccentricity. After the first couple of centuries of evangelization, there were no superficially Christianized pagans—but there remained some very strange expressions of Christianity.

That’s the conclusion, but I enjoin you to read the whole thing

Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen

My friend Matt Phillips explores an important point in Lutheran theology: when is a Christian allowed to resist unjust authority? This is a serious issue, as Luther’s rebellion against Papal authority helped to inspire a major peasants’ revolt in the 1520s. Luther eventually turned against it with a remarkable pamphlet entitled Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants (1525), in which he called on everyone to:

smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you.

The revolt was eventually put down, at the cost of some 100,000 lives. Some people never forgave Luther for this, and indeed I find it strange that his movement survived it, but Luther was unapologetic: his Reformation was to be a purely spiritual affair, not a political one. “God hath not granted the sword in vain” is one of the great Lutheran lines, the “sword” here being secular legal authority.

But to what extent this principle led to the German penchant for obedience is a topic that deserves further study. Some people just don’t deserve to be obeyed, do they? We can all think of a particular figure in German history to whom resistance would have been amply justified. Luther’s Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed (1523) indicates that Luther’s ideas were a little more subtle than commonly understood:

While he advised obedience to temporal authorities, Luther mocked evil rulers in the first paragraph of Temporal Authority when he wrote, “For God Almighty has made our rulers mad; they actually think they can do—and order their subjects to do—whatever they please.” He explained that subjects are not obligated to obey their rulers in all matters, especially regarding the command to turn over Luther’s books to temporal authorities. Referring to Acts 5:29, Luther explained that Christians owed obedience to temporal authorities in earthly matters, but they should not willingly turn over books. However, if the authorities searched their homes and confiscated their property, they must suffer as Christians and not resist forcibly.

Furthermore, in 1530:

at a meeting in Torgau, Luther and Philip Melanchthon agreed to support resistance against a potential Imperial invasion of Protestant lands. Luther, Melanchthon, and other theologians agreed to the legal argument that Emperor Charles V was elected under certain conditions of Imperial law. That is, the emperor had voluntarily limited his own authority in formulating and adjudicating laws, that is, man-made positive law as distinct from natural law. Therefore, if he acted outside of his jurisdiction, the Protestant princes (though not individual Christians as Christians) may actively resist as a matter of self-defense against the unjust laws of men. Thus, the theologians, particularly Luther, accepted the Saxon jurists’ argument as a matter of positive law, but still rejected active resistance based merely on theology or natural law.

Read the whole thing. I don’t know if this would have stopped Hitler, but it does indicate that for Luther, the “sword” was by no means absolute.

Lottie Moon

News from China: Lottie Moon‘s church has been designated as a historical site:

PENGLAI, China (BP)—From the Christmas offering for international missions that bears her name to movies, books and documentaries detailing her life of service, Southern Baptists often hail Lottie Moon as a missionary hero. Now Lottie Moon’s legacy will be preserved beyond Southern Baptist life.

Wulin Shenghui Church of Penglai in Shandong province, where Lottie Moon was a member during her time in Dengzhou, has been designated as a nationally protected historical and cultural site by the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, the China Christian Daily reported….

“We celebrate the decision to protect this location of historical significance,” Wisdom-Martin said. “More than a century later, we still feel the impact of Lottie’s legacy that helped shape our global missionary enterprise. Her sacrifice for the sake of the gospel continues to inspire new generations to fulfill (Christ’s Great) Commission.”

Built in 1872 by Southern Baptist missionaries Tarleton and Martha Crawford, the church is still in use, with a current church membership of about 4,000. The church was closed to foreigners in the early 1900s but reopened in 1988.

WMU leaders from the United States were some of the first foreigners to visit Moon’s church once it reopened. Within the walls of the European-style building, WMU leaders discovered a monument dedicated to Moon by Chinese Christians in 1915.

More at the link

Prince Arthur

Arthur Tudor, that is, whose death (in 1502) left Katherine of Aragon a widow after five months of marriage. Would the English send her back to Spain with her dowry, and be deprived of an alliance with a country that had just discovered the New World? Would Katherine lose the opportunity to be queen some day? By no means! The English arranged for Katherine to marry Arthur’s younger brother Henry, who succeeded to the throne in 1509 as King Henry VIII.* But Katherine’s daughter Mary displeased Henry – Henry Tudor had won the crown in 1485 through right of conquest, and Henry VIII really wanted a son to carry on the dynasty. Katherine, however, produced a series of miscarriages and stillbirths, which Henry began to believe was punishment for violating Leviticus 18:16: “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness.” (Indeed, the English had to get special permission from the papacy for the marriage to happen, and they based their argument partly on Deuteronomy 25:5: “If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her” – you can see how Biblicism had already become standard in formulating Christian policy.) Henry’s petition for a divorce from Katherine was denied, in part because the papacy had had to grant an exemption for the marriage in the first place, and in part because Rome was then occupied by Charles V, Katherine’s nephew, and was in no position to grant Henry any favors. 

Thus was founded the Church of England, with Henry as its head, and the power to grant his own divorce.**

To return to Prince Arthur, I noticed an article in Town and Country magazine just now (likely inspired by the success of a new television series, The Spanish Princess, about Katherine). Excerpt:

The Cause of Prince Arthur Tudor’s Death Remains a Medical Mystery

The Prince of Wales’s unexpected passing changed the course of European history, but we still don’t know exactly how he died.

Also known as the sweating sickness and simply the sweats, the so-called “English Sweat” which claimed Arthur, Price of Wales’s life has remained a medical mystery for centuries.

Reaching epidemic proportions on no less than five occasions during the late 15th and early 16th centuries, sweating sickness was highly lethal. Physician John Caius, whose book about the illness remains the most famous account from the time period, noted that death could occur within 3 hours of the onset of symptoms, and that those who survived the first 24 hours would usually make a full recovery (though surviving did not, evidently, prevent the patients from contracting the disease again.)

Sweating sickness was confined almost exclusively to England during its outbreaks, ravaging the wealthy more often than the poor. And yet, for all of its virulence, the sweats seemed to disappear almost as suddenly as they appeared in the first place, with no known outbreaks after 1578.

While the disease’s disappearance no doubt saved thousands of lives, it has also stymied modern medical investigators hoping to understand what claimed the life of Arthur and so many of his subjects.

Part of the trouble stems from sweating sickness’s symptoms—fever, chills, aches, delirium, and, of course, intense sweating—which are common to a number of diseases including influenza, scarlet fever, and typhus, yet never seem to fit exactly in strength, duration, or combination with any known medical issue. The most common modern theory suggests that the outbreaks may have been a form of hantavirus, similar to a hantavirus pulmonary syndrome that struck the American southwest in the 1990s. Exactly why the virus, if that was indeed the cause, would disappear so suddenly is not known, but some scholars suggest that it could be a result of the virus evolving in a way that made it less deadly or less easily spread to humans.

More at the link, including an image of the now-lost east window of St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster, which was commissioned for Arthur and Katherine’s engagement. You can see the couple in the lower right and left of the window; you can also see St. George on the left, another piece of evidence about his national importance in the late Middle Ages.

* Somehow this episode reminds me of a scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “But I don’t want to think I’ve lost a son, so much as gained a daughter! For, since the tragic death of her father… I want his only daughter to look upon me as her own dad, in a very real, and legally binding sense.”

** You can always tease an Anglican about the sordid origins of his Church. However, he will respond with the claim that Anglicanism represents the via media between Catholicism and Protestantism, a tolerant Big Tent of a religion that eschewed fanaticism (although Queen Elizabeth, whose Settlement inaugurated the rhetoric of the via media, did condemn numerous Catholics for religious reasons).

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. 

Spain

In the first half of the twentieth century, if you were an American medievalist and wanted to pick a country to specialize in, you would probably pick England, or France. Those were judged to be the most important and influential medieval polities – particularly England, whose language, Common Law, and system of governance were the direct antecedents of America’s own. France, for its part, was the birthplace of Gothic architecture, troubadour poetry, the Crusades, chivalry, “feudalism,” and other such archetypically medieval motifs.

Spain did not enjoy such status. It was on the periphery of Europe, and its New World descendants were all Third World countries.

Obviously, we don’t hold such values anymore; in fact, the positions have reversed. It’s old-school and “conservative” (even “racist“) to specialize in medieval England. Spain is much cooler, reflecting the protected status now afforded to Hispanics in the United States, and the importance we currently place on Diversity.* For medieval Spain was famously Diverse, featuring Muslims, Christians, and Jews living side-by-side in what is known as the Convivencia. The kingdom stands a riposte to the idea that the Middle Ages were characterized by intolerance and fanaticism, and act as a multicultural model for our own day. That this happy situation was brought to an end by Christian fanaticism offers further confirmation of academic prejudice.

Although… was the Convivencia a myth? As with all historical phenomena, opinions differ, and the debate will continue for a long time to come. One dissenter is Dario Fernandez-Morera, whose book, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise (2016) is reviewed by Lawrence Farley (hat tip: Rachel Brown):

The enthusiasm for the glories of tolerant Islam is suffused throughout modern scholarship, to the point of embarrassment. It is difficult not to conclude, after one looks at the actual historical facts that the scholars ignore and suppress, that their enthusiasm for Islam finds its roots in their distaste for Christianity. It is certainly not rooted in the historical evidence itself.

In this vision of Islamic Spain (renamed by the Muslim conquerors as “al-Andalus”), all three monotheistic faiths got along famously and all three enjoyed cultural flowering and prosperity under the watchful eye of a tolerant Islam.

In this version of history, the Christians of Spain were a benighted, primitive, and ignorant lot, who fortunately for them, ended up under Islam, which then offered them previously undreamt of opportunities to learn tolerance and culture. In this paradise Jews, Christians, and Muslims coexisted in a happy sunlit land, enjoying the benefits of convivencia—at least until the horrible Christians spoiled it all at the Spanish Reconquista, which recovered the land for Christendom and brought again the blight of intolerance and darkness to their land.

Read the whole thing. I like his Gone with the Wind references.

* Not that I’m embittered, mind, but I don’t like it when people who study Spain still complain that their specialty doesn’t get any respect.

Protestantism, The Bible, and Church Tradition

In the early sixteenth century, everyone knew that the Roman Catholic Church was corrupt, in that it was not living up to its own principles. The Pope may have been head of the Church, but he was also a secular ruler, the sovereign of the Papal States, and as such, engaged in all the subterfuge that Machiavelli describes in The Prince. The Church forbade any number of things, like holding more than one church office, marriage within certain degrees of consanguinity, or the keeping of mistresses, but was always willing to grant an exception for the right price, or turn a blind eye if the subject was important enough. Many popes enjoyed a very luxurious and self-indulgent lifestyle, and even if we got some great Renaissance art out of this, it still didn’t sit well with a lot of ordinary Christians. And altogether, the Church as an organization appeared bureaucratic and very venal, a long way from its lofty self-image as the foundation of Jesus Christ himself and the sole guarantor of human salvation.

So in this sense, Martin Luther had a point.

Luther went a little further than that, though. In common with Erasmus and a number of other prominent thinkers of his time, he identified the corruption of the Church with its wealth of extra-Biblical traditions. The humanist impulse was to go ad fontes, which to them was always textual, the text in this case being the Bible. Where in the Bible to you find any justification for:

veneration of saints and their relics
pilgrimage to visit these
penance
purgatory
indulgences
priests as a separate caste of human
monasticism
prescribed use of Latin

Etc. So all of these practices, some over a thousand years old when Luther was alive, were to be downgraded, because they’re not endorsed by the Bible. They were figured as useless at best, or positively harmful at worst – idolatrous and sinful. Now, I suppose that Luther had a point here too… but, really, his program was no more true than its opposite. It is arbitrary, a judgment call, that the Bible should be the sole source of Christian practice. Even Erasmus condemned the mechanized, what’s-in-it-for-me aspect of popular piety, not its non-Biblicism as such.

The real significance of Luther, though, is encompassed in the word Glaubensspaltung – the “Faith-Splitting.” Luther was in no position to be elected pope, at which point he could use the power of the office to impose a more Bible-based Christianity on everyone. Instead, he managed to convince certain German princes that it was no big matter to declare their independence from the Roman Catholic Church, so that he could at least impose his vision of Christianity over their territories. Americans generally view this secession favorably, given this country’s Protestant history and its own parallel origin in the Declaration of Independence. But you could also say that Luther permanently destroyed the unity of Western Christendom, a terrible and tragic thing.

And if Luther could break away in order to implement his own interpretation of Christianity, then so could everyone else. The Bible is a big book, with a lot of stuff in it, and it all depends on what you want to emphasize. Luther himself retained some non-Biblical Catholic practices like infant baptism or the notion of an established church, for reasons that he could justify to himself. But following Luther’s lead, all sorts of people in Europe then felt licensed to interpret the Bible according to their own consciences and to establish their own churches, often going far beyond the dictates of Lutheranism. Jean Calvin discerned predestination and limited atonement from his reading of the Bible. Even more extreme were the Anabaptists, who sought to recreate the church of the first century AD as described in the letters of St. Paul. You know you’re pure when you’re a small group in a hostile world, and accordingly Anabaptists refused all connection to state power, which had only been established in the fourth century, long after the closure of the New Testament canon. Other signature Anabaptist beliefs included adult baptism (in the mode of Jesus, who accepted it when he was old enough to understand what was going on), pacifism (Matthew 5: “whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also”), the shunning of wayward members (Titus 3: “A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject”), and the refusal to take oaths (Matthew 5: “Swear not at all… but let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay”). 

How many other Biblical verses have inspired new sects or at least cherished practices? Off the top of my head:

Genesis 9: “Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.”

This is spoken to Noah as he leaves the Ark, thus it predates Moses and even Abraham, and so is still binding, according to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. This prohibition on the consumption of blood means that JWs will refuse to receive blood transfusions.

Exodus 20: “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.”

That would be the sabbath day, the seventh day of the week, i.e. Saturday, the one the Jews keep. Seventh-Day Adventists believe that the early Christian custom of treating Sunday as the sabbath was a grave error.

Mark 16: “And these signs shall follow them that believe… they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them.”

This has given rise to the Pentecostal custom of glossolalia (speaking in tongues)… and in extreme cases of serpent handling,* that emblem of Appalachian weirdness.

(Even the Westboro Baptist Church can explain very logically why the Bible compels us to picket AIDS funerals.)

Back in the sixteenth century, Roman Catholics responded to Biblicism by rejecting it. Or rather, they affirmed that the Bible was important, but they also affirmed that longstanding church traditions were important, on the principle that Jesus did not write the Bible, he founded a church, and without the church there would be no Bible. The Church precedes the Bible, and if the Church endorses a tradition, then it’s all good, and there is no reason to throw out customs that people have found efficacious and deeply meaningful for hundreds of years. Yes, the corruption of the church had to end, as did any calculated, mechanistic attitudes towards salvation. But, they rightly reasoned, there was no reason why a Bible-based Christianity would necessarily be the cure for these things. One can have the love of God in one’s heart, even as one believes in the efficacy of all seven of the sacraments, papal supremacy, or the intercession of saints.

And even the Anabaptists agree, in their way. The Anabaptist group that everyone knows about are the Amish. As mentioned, they hold themselves apart from the world (2 Corinthians 6: “Be not unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?”), and have adopted any number of customs in order to signal this. But where in the Bible does it say that one must abjure electricity and automobiles? Where in the Bible does it say that men must wear plain dress and have beards, but with no hair on the upper lip?

You can drive tradition out with a pitchfork, but it always finds its way back.

* The trouble is that verses 9-20 (the “Longer Ending”) of Mark 16 were probably not in the original manuscript. I personally think that the practice is condemned by 1 Corinthians 10:9: “Neither let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed of serpents.”