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  • Susan Elaine Jones

Return to Eden

River Ouse at sunset

Next week I'm displaying and doing a workshop at DDD14 (Death, Dying and Disposal at the University of Bath, 2019). So of course, I have been prepping mounted pictures and getting interpretation and explanation ready in a diligent and focussed manner.

Needing a break, and having dived in the river a lot recently (and looking up swimmers itch), I took a trip with a friend to Bedford, as it seemed ideal to Return to Eden (no, not that one). For any of you unaware of the location of the Garden of Eden, or the availability of the panacea - cure for all ills, or even the end of the world and the millennium Shiloh, as foretold in the Book of Revelations, here's a quick account of my first visit. (Go on, pop off for a read, I'll wait).

So this visit, I decided that I would figure out exactly what went on after Joanna Southcott, (the noted prophetess, who predicted that as a 65 year old virgin, she would give birth to Shiloh in 1814), instead died. What happened to her 12,000 odd followers?

Flowchart of two prophets of the Southcott belief and cognitive dissonance

Note, it wasn't the first time a prophet had been mistaken. The first prophet, Richard BROTHERS lost many of his followers to Joanna SOUTHCOTT when he predicted the end of the world on the 19th December 1795 (having already been committed to an Asylum). He explained that he was wrong to stop him being conceited in his powers from direct contact with God, but did lose a lot of followers when he wasn't revealed as the Prince of the Hebrews and the Ruler of the World. So when Joanna's prediction of giving birth to the Shiloh didn't apparently happen, what did her followers do? Did they re-evaluate their belief system in light of this new finding? Or continue to believe it was all true, but required further explanation (or revelation)? Some did abandon their beliefs.

But it wasn't the most common path.

Choose your prophet - a flowchart of options

Many turned to the community of their congregation, and the local leader, to explain what to believe now. And in many cases, that leader claimed to be divinely inspired and/or hearing God's voice and/or be the next Prophet. George TURNER lead his congregation from Leeds, as well as many he had met and preached to in London. Samuel SIBLEY preached as the "household of faith" to his congregation of 500 in Smithfield, London. Alexander LINDSEY declared himself "Laban" to his congregation of 200 in Southwark. Joseph ALLMAN became "Zebulon" and so on.

George TURNER won the most popular contest, such that when he was committed to an Asylum for his beliefs and prophecies, 4,045 supporters petitioned for his release. He predicted the end of the world on 28 Jan 1817, and then later the coming of the SHILOH on 14 Oct 1820, which was revised to 10 April 1821. When it didn't happen then, he became ill, took to his bed, and soon died in a coma.

It is at this point I shifted in attitude from laughing to realising that living with these strong beliefs is actually something between terrifying and deadly. Re-reading the books from the Panacea society, when Joanna SOUTHCOTT first started to hear voices, she was shunned by her friends and relatives, was removed from her job, socially isolated and, frankly, lost. She had to choose between the reality of her experience of the voices, and normal life. Mabel BARLTROP, who became Octavia thought that Joanna Southcott's box would save the world from the horror of World War One (that killed her own son). Imagine carrying that sort of responsibility? She also believed that she couldn't travel more than 77 steps from her home for years, which meant she didn't even go to her son's funeral. The revelations from the voices were strong enough to not only convince Joanna, but due to the evidence of various "trials" of her predictions, to bring her thousands of followers.

How did these people come to believe in her?

In exactly the same way that you believe you hold every single belief you have.

By taking a series of small, apparently logical and rational steps.

[If you don't have experiences that make you question the accepted norms of society, then stop feeling superior, and just feel incredibly lucky. And... spend a moment thinking before ridiculing the next anti-vaxxer, flat-earther, new world order fearing person on the internet. They hold those beliefs for strongly personal but apparently rational reasons, just like all your beliefs, and which a casual meme joke at their expense will only divide society further. If you really want to help, research how to positively engage with people, e.g. here.]

Meanwhile, the battle of the prophets continued. Many accused others of being "led astray", or "being led astray by the devil". Some threatened others. Southcott's former followers (Southcottians) formed a complex web of communications as they debated and analysed the claims and tried to decide who to believe. One (William Tozer), decried Jane TOWNLEY as talking the devil, promoted George TURNER as the true leader, but ended up physically abusing him, breaking his shins with kicks, smacking him in the head, and shattering his chair, before switching his support to William SHAW (I haven't found if SHAW was happy to receive this attention).

I won't (and really can't) argue the merits of each claim. By the time the Panacea Society established Octavia as their eighth and final Prophet of their Soutcottian tradition, they had settled on this line of succession.

The official progression of Prophets for the Panacea Society branch of the Southcottians

At the time of Octavia as the Eighth Prophet, which set Helen SHEPSTONE (renamed Helen EXETER) as the Seventh Prophet, there were over 2,000 "sealed" members (which shows a strong level of commitment to the beliefs), and voer time, 85,000 people applied for the panacea cure by mail. However, other Southcottians had accepted Michael MILLS ("Prince Michael") as the Seventh Prophet... and some of his former followers became the "real" Seventh Prophet as the joint team of Benjamin and Mary PURNELL of the Shiloh. Their followers (including the baseball team and the amusement park workers in Michigan) split into the Old House of David and Mary's City of David when Benjamin died, leaving the question as to whether Mary alone was still Shiloh.

Many of these split off groups continue to have their own followers today, including WROE's followers as the Christian Israelites, who weren't convinced to accept Jezreel despite his visits to them. Some Jezreelites survive in the UK (I think from the original Kent congregation).

Other Southcottian groups

I should note too that many of Joanna's followers rejected all the successive prophet claims. However, many, (2,000 in fact) accepted a new prophet, John WARD "Zion", 10 years after her death and despite ignoring the many other prophets who had made claims in the meantime.

Eating a scrumped apple from the Garden of Eden

And if you think all of this is confusing, imagine being one of the volunteers trying to explain this to people coming through the door.

As two nice upsides from this whole escapade:

  • The remaining money from the Panacea Society now helps the needy, including people suffering from mental illness. Making no judgment at all on the Southcottians, many of them, including Mabel, suffered terribly from depression and mental issues throughout their lives. it also funds research on millennial and end of world beliefs to help us all better understand our psychology.

  • I still couldn't resist scrumping an apple in the Garden of Eden, and persuading a friend to have a few bites too. She looks pretty happy about it.

Again, if you are ever in Bedford, visit the marvellous Panacea Museum.

Or, if you're in Bath next week, visit the DDD conference and see some of my new pictures, including the new Osteology portfolio, and the Skull Maps!

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