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 Catholic mystic like Madame Guyon. For example.
I have fresh things revealed to me every day. I am awakened every morning between three and four o’clock. I sit up in my bed till the day breaks; and have communications given to me as soon as I awake. When the day breaks I rise and go down into the dining-room by myself; the moment I enter the room I feel as though I was surrounded with angels; feeling a heavenly joy which I cannot describe, and which has taken from me my natural appetite.
Like a mystical nun she identified herself with the bride of the Lamb in the Book of Revelation, and Christ as her spiritual husband.
Nuns are protected by their communities, prophetesses are not. Joanna went over the edge at the age of sixty-four, in 1814. She believed that she was called to a second virgin birth, and that from her would come “Shiloh,” the baby who should grow to rule the nations with a rod of iron. The signs of her pregnancy could not be mistaken. The believers sent gifts of silver, a cradle of satinwood was made at a cost of £200, a gold crown and the name Shiloh in Hebrew embroidered at the head. She decided to take a husband to make Shiloh legitimate.
The expectation of Shiloh became public; and vile pamphlets and caricatures littered the press, mobs began to harass Southcottians in the provinces, stuffed stomachs of big pregnant dolls were ripped open by “hangmen” on village greens. She began to grow weak, and doubted her own pregnancy, and died on December 27, 1814. Her disciples realized that the birth was intended spiritually.
Historical explanation of all this may take various approaches. First, psychohistory may guess at the interior life of the prophetess from her utterances. She was sexually attracted to men, and physically repelled by them. Her dreams were frequently erotic, but not very, not more earthy than the refined poetry of the convent. But unlike a nun, Joanna was a theological feminist. Her vocation was to compensate for Eve’s sin in the fall of humanity at the garden of Eden; and in view of her beliefs and inclinations Professor Harrison sees the illusory pregnancy as the last step on the road to hysteria. But he confesses (it is the most striking new insight into the whole episode) that until the last stages the dominant impression of her writings is not of madness. Take away the lunacy or delusion of the last year, and we have a phenomenon which we do not need psychohistory in order to understand. It is intelligible as a type of extreme millenarian sect-hysteria, and as such open to a historical classification. No doubt several of the leading adherents would have lived in asylums if the world had been then more adequately supplied with asylums. A few of them spent several years in asylums. But only a few. Harrison shows unexpectedly that there is much more to Joanna Southcott than a poor crazed ex-witch.
The first question is, who believed in her? Of 7,000 believers, nearly a third (over 2,000) lived in London; a majority were literate artisans; women outnumbered men by two-thirds to one-third; about two-thirds, men or women, were bachelors or spinsters. In the rare cases where the congregation had an Anglican incumbent as leader, they behaved like contemporary Methodists, attending the parish church in the morning and their meeting in the evening. Some chapels, like many Methodist chapels at the same date, used the liturgy of the Established Church, but with a Southcottian hymn book. The congregations gradually faded into the 1840s, not so much (probably) from the shock of the false pregnancy, as because the groups were unlike Methodists in forming neither structure nor government. They were found to depend upon the existence of the prophetess, and after her death they dwindled and at last vanished.
They read the Bible, very literally; and wisely or unwisely, the Church included in the Bible its last book, the Revelation of St. John the Divine. In these congregations we find the extremism of naïve souls poring over texts intended to be understood symbolically.
Such texts were always more credible in times of stress within the State; as during the Civil War in England, or in Southcott’s case the overturning of every European landmark in the revolutionary wars of France. The dates of her mission are coincidental but very striking—1792, the year of the terror, to 1814, the year when Napoleon was overthrown. “It has always been observed,” remarked one of Joanna’s allies and critics in 1795, “that times of calamity are peculiarly fertile in visions and prognostications, predictions and prophecies.” Harrison frames the theory articulately in modern terms. As the old social landmarks disappeared, a new ideology was needed to take account of the disruption of the old order and to sanction new aspirations; and millenarian prophecy was one form of such an ideology.
The juxtaposition of social unsettlement and religious excitements is too frequent to be only coincidence. Harrison is right to point out that the theory still suffers all the disadvantage of a general theory hard to test in any individual cases. It is not clear that an upholsteress who wins admirers and then disciples is living in any state of high tension except that which is generated in the psyche. His judgment is surely right. “At present it would seem that the precise relationship between social change and psychological disorder (despite common assumptions to the contrary) is insufficiently understood to warrant using it for any but the most casual of historical interpretations.”
Another theory is based on social deprivation, or a Marxist theory of pie in the sky; now is bad, hereafter will be good, we compensate suffering by hope. The sects were more likely to arise in new towns of the industrial revolution. But one of the most important Southcottian congregations arose in Crewkerne, a country town in Somerset, merely because the vicar happened to be a convert to Joanna. The fact is, very few members of these extremist groups belonged to the class of very poor.
A related theory is that these fanaticisms were a religious way of demanding social change, or revolution. The interest of Engels in the Christian Communists of this age is celebrated. But as a general way of accounting for the influence of people like Joanna Southcott, this approach hardly convinces. Joanna was conservative, taught her people to have nothing to do with politics, claimed that she was a faithful disciple of the Established Church. Still, anyone who propagated doctrines so unestablished was bound to cause unsettlement of mind, unease with the constituted Church, and therefore doubt about lawful authority. “Dig into the history of popular movements almost anywhere before 1850,” writes Harrison, “and the chances are good that a millenarian reference will be unearthed”; Robert Owen and his Socialists are the chief examples. But many of these groups had no idea that they wanted social change in this life. They waited for the kingdom of the Saints, which would be given and not achieved. This is certainly not the religious face of the idea of progress.
Harrison avoids the sad correspondences between Southcottians and cultists of the twentieth century. He tells us nothing of the desperate search for bishops and archbishops to open Joanna’s sealed box, which was intended to be opened in the presence not only of twenty-four bishops but of 2,000 maidens in white. When the box was at last opened (1928) in the presence of one bishop and a professor, it was found to contain a woman’s night cap, a lottery ticket of 1796, and a few other objects, some strange. Harrison has no interest in these modern aberrations. His concern is not crankiness but the extent to which millenarian sects throw light upon the sane if peculiar attitudes and credulities of laboring men and women in the age of the French Revolution.
This book surrounds Joanna Southcott with every form of millennial group, just before or contemporary. Harrison takes account of the influence of mystics like Boehme and Swedenborg; Shakers and early Mormons; a few mad groups where vile rituals like the fondling of genitals were inserted into the rite. He shows how movements like Southcott’s existed in a bewitching world of people’s magic, folklore, medicine for cows, demonic possession, signs of the zodiac, chapbooks and almanacs, ghosts, dreams, charms against disease, fits and agitations and convulsions, miracles and astrology. He tells of a woman running up and down on the belly of another woman to trample on the whore of Babylon, of a woman who said she gave birth to sixteen rabbits and was believed by the local apothecary. For years I have not enjoyed any writing on popular religion so much as I have enjoyed this book.
September 27, 1979