The Second Coming: Popular Millenarianism 1780-1850
by J.F.C. Harrison
Rutgers University Press, 266 pp., $19.50
When men or women go mad, they sometimes cast their madness into religious unrealities. Insanity is not a matter for the historian, whose business is the reality of the past. Some English historians were grieved when they heard that so good a social historian as J.F.C. Harrison was spending precious hours of research on Joanna Southcott (1750-1814), a prophetess widely considered to be mad. It seemed like poking around an asylum hoping to find historical truth from the utterances of the inmates. In this beautifully written book Professor Harrison proves abundantly that he has not wasted time.
Joanna Southcott was a farmer’s daughter from Devonshire, who served as a maid in various houses and learned the trade of upholsterer. When she was about thirty years old she came for a moment under the spell of a violent and immoral preacher whom John Wesley had expelled from the Methodists. Perceiving the immorality she joined a regular group of Methodists in Exeter. In 1792, when she was forty-two years old, “I was strangely visited, by day and night, concerning what was coming on the whole earth. I was then ordered to set it down in writing.” So she became a prophetess. Though her education was scant and her handwriting almost illegible, she published sixty-two pamphlets during the next twenty-two years. These prophetic pamphlets contain passages of autobiography, which together make an extraordinary account of the mind of a laboring girl during the last quarter of the eighteenth century.
She began to gain credit as a prophetess in the literal sense of a wise woman who predicts events like war or famine. Some countrymen thought her a witch. The Methodists were shocked, and she left; an independent minister told her her voices came from the devil. An Anglican clergyman was discouraging but so kind that she pestered him thereafter. But soon three Anglican clergymen, already engaged in prophecy during those years of revolutionary terror in France, accepted her claims to be a Christian prophetess. Her writings were placed (1801) in a sealed box and she moved to London, expenses being paid by one of the clergy. The upholsteress turned into a lady revered in London drawing rooms. Her adherents sent circulars to members of Parliament.
They tried a tour of the country. Her talents were not for public speaking. From 1802 she began “sealing” the believers in accordance with the verse of Revelation 7:3. “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God upon their foreheads.” The sealing was indiscriminate. Five years later her group had issued 14,000 seals. They opened three chapels in London and congregations in the north and midlands and west. Most members of the congregations had letter-books of Joanna’s papers with descriptions of dreams and visions, texts of Scripture, and prophetic comment upon contemporary news. The language was Biblical, she included doggerel verse, her experiences had something akin with those of a …