XLV

A religious humbug on John Bull⁠—​Joanna Southcott⁠—​The second Shiloh.

Joanna Southcott was born at St. Mary’s Ottery in Devonshire, about the year 1750. She was a plain, stout-limbed, hard-fisted farmer lass, whose toils in the field⁠—for her father was in but very moderate circumstances⁠—had tawned her complexion and hardened her muscles, at an early age. As she grew toward woman’s estate, necessity compelled her to leave her home and seek service in the city of Exeter, where for many years, she plodded on very quietly in her obscure path, first, as a domestic hireling, and subsequently as a washer woman.

I have an old and esteemed friend on Staten Island whose father, still living, recollects Joanna well, as she used to come regularly to his house of a Monday morning, to her task of cleansing the family linen. He was then but a little lad, yet he remembers her quite well, with her stout, robust frame, and buxom and rather attractive countenance, and her queer ways. Even then she was beginning to invite attention by her singular manners and discourse, which led many to believe her demented.

It was at Exeter that Joanna became religiously impressed, and joined the Wesleyan Methodists, as a strict and extreme believer in the doctrines of that sect. During her attendance upon the Wesleyan rites, she became intimate with one Sanderson, who, whether a designing rogue, or only a very fanatical believer, pretended that he had discovered in the good washerwoman a Bible prodigy; and it was not long before the poor creature began literally, to “see sights” and dream dreams of the most preternatural description, for which Sanderson always had ready some very telling interpretation. Her visions were of the most thoroughly “mixed” character withal, sometimes transporting her to the courts of heaven, and sometimes to a very opposite region, celebrated for its latent and active caloric. When she ranged into the lower world, she had a very unpleasant habit of seeing sundry scoffers and unbelievers (in herself) belonging to the congregation, in very close but disadvantageous intercourse with the Evil One, who was represented as having a particular eye to others around her, even while they laid claim to special piety. Of course, such revelations as these could not be tolerated in any well regulated community, and when some most astounding religious gymnastics performed by Joanna in the midst of prayers and sermons, occurred to heap up the measure of her offenses, it became full time to take the matter in hand, and the prophetess was expelled. Now, those whom she had not served up openly with brimstone, agreeing with her about those whom she had thus “cooked,” and delighted in their own exemption from that sort of dressing, seceded inconsiderable numbers, and became Joanna’s followers. This gave her a nucleus to work upon, and between 1790 and 1800, she managed to make herself known throughout Britain, proclaiming that she was to be the destined Mother of the Second Messiah, and although originally quite illiterate, picking up enough general information and Bible lore, to facilitate her publication of several very curious, though sometimes incoherent works. One of the earliest and most startling of these was her “Warning to the whole World, from the Sealed Prophecies of Joanna Southcott, and other communications given since the writings were opened on the 12th of January, 1803.” This foretold the close approach of the great red dragon of the Revelations, “with seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads,” and the birth of the “man-child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron.”

In 1805, a shoemaker named Tozer built her a chapel in Exeter at his own expense, and it was, from the first, constantly filled on service-days with eager worshipers. Here she gave exhortations, and prophesied in a species of religious frenzy or convulsion, sometimes uttering very heavy prose, and sometimes the most fearful doggerel rhyme resembling⁠—well⁠—perhaps our album effusions here at home! Indeed, I can think of nothing else equally fearful. In these paroxysms, Joanna raved like an ancient Pythoness whirling on her tripod, and to just about the same purpose. Yet, it was astonishing to see how the thing went down. Crowds of intelligent people came from all parts of the United Kingdom to listen, be converted, and to receive the “seals” (as they were called) that secured their fortunate possessor unimpeded and immediate admission to heaven. Of course, tickets so precious could not be given away for nothing, and the seal trade in this new form proved very lucrative.

The most remarkable of all these conversions was that of the celebrated engraver, William Sharp, who, notwithstanding his eminent position as an artist, by no means bore out his name in other things. He had previously become thoroughly imbued with the notions of Swedenborg, Mesmer, and the famous Richard Brothers, and was quite ripe for anything fantastic. Such a convert was a perfect godsend to Joanna, and she was easily persuaded to accompany him to London, where her congregations rapidly increased to enormous proportions, even rivaling those now summoned by the “drum ecclesiastical” and orthodox of the Rev. Mr. Spurgeon.

The whole sect extended until, in 1813, it numbered no less than one hundred thousand members, signed and “sealed”⁠—Mr. Sharp occupying a most conspicuous position at the very footstool of the Prophetess. Late in 1813, appeared the Book of Wonders, “in five parts,” and it was a clincher. Poor Sharp came in largely for the expenses, but valiantly stood his ground against it all. At length, in 1814, the great Joanna dazzled the eyes of her adherents and the world at large with her Prophecies Concerning the Prince of Peace. This delectable manifesto flatly announced to mankind that the second Shiloh, so long expected, would be born of the Prophetess at midnight, on October 19, in that same year, i.e. 1814. The inspired writer was then enceinte, although a virgin, as she expressly and solemnly declared, and in the sixty-fourth year of her age. Among the other preternatural concomitants of this anticipated eventful birth, was the fact that the period of her pregnancy had lasted for several years.

Of course, this stupendous announcement threw the whole sect into ecstasies of religious exultation; while, on the other hand, it afforded a fruitful subject of ridicule for the utterly irreverent London pamphleteers. Poor Sharp, who had caused a magnificent cradle and baby-wardrobe to be got ready at his own expense, was most unmercifully scored. The infant was caricatured with a long gray beard and spectacles, with Sharp in a duster carefully rocking him to sleep, while Joanna the Prophetess treated the engraver to some “cuts” in her own style, with a bunch of twigs.

On the appointed night, the street in which Joanna lived was thronged with the faithful, who, undeterred by sarcasm, fully credited her prediction. They bivouacked on the sidewalks in motley crowds of men, women, and children; and as the hours wore on, and their interest increased, burst forth into spontaneous psalmody. The adjacent thoroughfares were as densely jammed with curious and incredulous spectators, and the mutton pie and ballad businesses flourished extensively. The interior of the house, with the exception of the sick chamber, was illuminated in all directions, and the dignitaries of the sect held the anterooms and corridors, “in full fig,” to receive the expected guest. But the evening passed, then midnight came, then morning, butalas! no Shiloh; and, little by little, the disappointed throngs dispersed! Poor Joanna, however, kept her bed, and finally, after many fresh paroxysms and prophecies, on the 27th of December, 1814, gave up the ghost⁠—the indefatigable Sharp still declaring that she had gone to heaven for a season, only to legitimatize the unborn infant, and would re-arise again from death, after four days, with the Shiloh in her arms. So firm was this faith in him and many other respectable persons, that the body of the Prophetess was retained in her house until the very last moment. When the dissection demanded by the majority of the sect could no longer be delayed, that operation was performed, and it was found that the subject had died of ovarian dropsy; but was⁠—as she had always maintained herself to be⁠—a virgin. Dr. Reece, who had been a devout believer, but was now undeceived, published a full account of this and all the other circumstances of her death, and another equally earnest disciple bore the expenses of her burial at St. John’s Wood, and placed over her a tombstone with appropriate inscriptions.

As late as 1863, there were many families of believers still existing near Chatham, in Kent; and even in this country can here and there be found admirers of the creed of Joanna Southcott, who are firmly convinced that she will reappear some fine morning, with Sanderson on one side of her and Sharp on the other.