The Panacea museum. Where to start describing this... this... genius work of museum explanation text. Perhaps I should first state its importance:
It was the home of the eight prophet, Octavia, who was bringing everlasting life and the new millennium with God.
It houses the box of Joanna Southcott's prophecies to help humanity survive the millennium.
It is built around the original garden of Eden. In Bedford.
It was holding a conference on some of the many other apocalypse cults and cognitive dissonance.
If all of this is news to you, it may be because they might have been mistaken in their beliefs. But they also put the case that because the 24 bishops haven't bothered to turn up to open the box of prophecies, we haven't yet been blessed by God with the new Millennium and ever lasting life for the true believers.
But frankly, none of this is why you should go to this museum.
You should go because it has walls of explanatory text written by a genius! Ever board of exploration has a nugget of tongue-in-cheek wisdom that can be read as straight-down-the-line for true believers. For example, the first board talking about the eighth prophet hearing voices which she believed were of God:
"Her sister-in-law had her committed to the asylum.
Mabel rejected this characterisation of her faith".
I won't even try to explain the whole story (go there and read it for yourself), but I have to share some more quotes:
"The purpose of the society was to achieve immortality through "Overcoming", following the strict rules in Octavia's scripts (which were very like the manners of the middle classes in 1900)... Panaceans believed that they were on God's side, standing for order, monarchy, private business and the British Empire. For them, evil was represented by revolutionary change - Soviet Russia, democracy, trade unions and even the Labour Party. Ocatvia died on 16th October 1934. Her death was shocking for all those who believed that Octavia would live forever in the new millennium. They waited for four days for her resurrection - but eventually decided to order a coffin."
"Octavia (as Mabel Barltrop became known) was told in several communications by God that Bedford was the site of the original Garden of Eden. This was confirmed by the voice of the "Divine Mother", who spoke through Emily Goodwin who originally joined the community to nurse Octavia's aunt, but then heard voices and received visions."
Octavia was the eighth prophet in a slightly tangled and disputed line of people claiming to hear messages from God.
"The first prophet was Richard Brothers, who began experiencing dreams and visions, and named himself God's Shiloh, the messiah who was to gather the people of Israel as foretold in the Bible. In 1795 he was arrested, questioned, and committed to a lunatic asylum."
"Joanna Southcott also began receiving prophecies in the 1790s.... few accepted that the words came from God, but when she published her prophecies in 1801 she attracted thousands of followers. Her box of unopened prophecies (stored at the museum) did not attract the 24 bishops' required for it to be opened and accepted by the Church of England, and so explains why God did not - and still does not - send the millennium."
"In Spring 1814, aged 64 and a virgin, Joanna Southcott announced to her astonished followers that she was pregnant with the Messiah, Shiloh. Elaborate gifts were prepared for the child, including a gilded cradle. Newspapers reported regularly on the extraordinary story, and contemporary cartoonists lampooned Southcott mercilessly. As 1814 drew to a close and no child arrived questions about Southcott's claims grew louder. Final hope was that the child would be born on 25th December (Christmas day). On 27th December, Joanna Southcott died. An autopsy revealed no child."
(There is then a tangled web of other people being declared, or declaring themselves prophets or messiahs, usually promising to bring the millennium and eternal life, before then unexpectedly dying, or being accused of sex with community women despite the celibate rules.)
"Mabel Barltrop was not the only person believed to be the Shiloh in the 20th Century. In 1919, two other claimants to be Joanna Southcott's messianic children were living in Britain and America. The two claimants were in fact three people. One was called Michael Mills, who claimed to be Shiloh from 1891 until his death in 1922. He was accused of abusing his power within the community he set up, especially with female followers, and was eventually gaoled for several years."
"The other Shiloh was in fact two people, a married couple called Benjamin and Mary Purcell. Having previously followed Michael Mills until his arrest, they left his community and instead claimed to be the Shiloh together. Benjamin Purcell's death in December 1927 raised an inevitable question - what happened to Shiloh? Was Mary Purcell now Shiloh on her own? Or had she lost her status as the messiah, now that Benjamin was no longer with her? The community divided dramatically over the answers."
There is a lovely board, as an aside, discussing traits of millennium and apocalypse "groups" that have to cope with the Cognitive Dissonance of seeing nothing happening on a predicted date, whilst still believing that something had to happen. It is somewhere in the middle of tracing the prophets in which most information boards end with "died" of "accused of power abuse and sex" and then discussion of how they mass of the community decided on the next prophet to follow.
I haven't even had room to fit in the prophet of whom the only image is a cartoon of him on a donkey (the first prophet to be accused of sexual improprieties), or Mabel's stance on feminism (having formed a christian society centered on widowed and elderly women), and the problem that raised when gentlemen of the community had (at the time, illegal) homosexual relations. Or that the society realised that they could produce the panacea to all illness, for which they changed their name to the Panacea Society and sent out "cures" to nearly 100,000 people. Or even the big campaigns to open Joanna Southcott's box, which is mentioned by Charles Dickens and Monty Python. Or the house they kept prepared for the 24 visiting bishops, which still has rooms made up ready in the museum.
Really, if you are anywhere near Bedford (and why would you be apart from to visit this little gem), go spend a couple of hours admiring the best museum text ever.
And come away deciding just how well grounded your own beliefs are, because this whole community, and many others like them, got to this point through a series of apparently reasonable, logical steps.
And, wonder, what's in the box?