I was at first in doubt whether it would be advisable to introduce any mention of this wretched body of fanatics in the present work: but since they have established regular houses of worship … since the delusion has spread abroad amongst the middle and lower classes to a considerable, nay, to an incredible extent, and especially since a daring prediction of a pretended Messiah, to be born of this woman about the latter end of the present year (1814) has received a species of countenance which could hardly have been believed without the support of undoubted testimony, the Southcottians, or sealed people, appear to have an unquestionable claim to be numbered among the English sects. Johnson Grant. History of the English Church and of the Sects Which Have Departed…(1814) Published by J. Hatchard. p. 445.
Gifts were pouring in for Shiloh, a promised messiah, and the names of all the donors were entered in a book just in case, heaven forbid, the anticipated birth should fail. Some newspapers alleged that the prophetess, the mother-to-be, had received in excess of £30,000 worth of gifts and was about to skip the country. But actually the hours were slipping away and the “expectant” Spiritual Mother’s health was steadily worsening. Something was wrong. The child should have been born on October 10 or 12, 1814 and here it was past midnight on Christmas Eve and still no child.
The expectant mother was 65 years old and instructed her followers should she die that her body was to be kept warm with hot water bottles. In case she was not resurrected, she also instructed that if putrefaction set in, an operation was to be conducted and the baby released after four days. By Monday December 26th, now in severe pain, her doctor ordered opium pills as strong labor began suggesting that the birth was soon. At eight in the evening her physician visited her again and this time the mother was in a coma with “laborious breathing, the expression of countenance gone, the features shriveled and shrunk, and the pulsation of the wrist not to be felt.”[i] The “pregnant” mother struggled through the night and early on Tuesday morning she breathed her last. Four days later an autopsy was permitted but there was no child and no evidence of pregnancy.
This article discusses what happens in the minds of a large group of believers who were expecting the spiritual struggle of cosmic importance to end with the time-stopping birth of a Second Messiah. The English prophetess Joanna Southcott (1750 -1814) is our preoccupation. Near the end of her life, and in desperation to preserve her prophetic claims of a new millennium, she claimed to be a virgin and pregnant with child. After her death the predominant response pattern by her most committed believers, who now suffered destabilization and prophetic disconfirmation, reacted in a manner that for the most part supports sociographic dissonance theory. This story has everyday practical concerns.
Prophecies seldom fail for true believers. Time and again we see this. Failure of religious prophecies might impugn the Almighty’s integrity. However, as confirmed by the Bible itself (Duet. 18:21, 22), if a prophet’s foretelling goes awry the prophecy is not of God, and the prophet is false. The prophet – not God – is responsible for the failure. But invariably restructuring of the prophecy occurs through motivated reasoning (emotion-based, decision-making phenomenon) and the prophet slips away vindicated. Some believers, possessed of an iron will, maintain their faith after the prophet is proved false, while others make it a point to avoid man's puny wisdom and wait for the Lord to bring light to the hidden things of darkness and the prophecies.
It is said that sermons on prophecy attract large crowds because those who attend hope to escape social ills, political turbulence, catastrophes of some kind, or to settle unfulfilled or loss or other deeply felt, unfulfilled desires. No doubt there is a variety of reasons.[ii] With these heightened expectations the human responses after a prophetic failure are understandable even if they are not logical.
Sociologists who investigate loyalty to belief-commitments find that religious groups seldom follow a rational course of action after failure of a prophecy or in espousing explanations for that failure.[iii] It frequently takes years for the devoted to abandon previously held “absolutes” embedded in the prophecy – if they ever do. However, it is often the case that they will forge a revision of that prophecy by emphasizing conditional attributes (e.g. Jonah’s prediction that Nineveh would be destroyed).[iv]
What follows in this essay are historical events that took place more than 200 years ago that bear on the topic of prophetic disconfirmation. The discussion centers around the life of a charismatic woman whose writings had a profound effect on the poor in England during the latter part of the 18th century. At that time there was an unusual degree of uncertainty and unrest among the lower classes. The Industrial Revolution meant that employment in factories rather than in the homes and on the estates of the wealthy was the new norm. Food shortages led to civil insurrection. The rural economy was in upheaval. The 1793-1814 war added to the uncertainty of the times.
Joanna Southcott was born to a poor farmer in East Devon, England.[v] Her messages connected with the poorer working class. “I hear the cries of the poor, complaining they are starving to death, for want of food.”
Southcott’s audacious millennial prophecies are worth exploring for the insight they provide into the ways our minds play tricks, despite the fact that from the vantage point of the 21st century her prophecies are little more than a footnote in the history of Christianity in England.
Who was Joanna Southcott?
Joanna Southcott was a life-long intense reader of Scripture, attaching everyday events to prophecies through her idiosyncratic biblical lens. She had little formal education, and relied almost exclusively on information she had uncovered through her unceasing study of the Bible. Her writings were given considerable weight, at least in part, because she was an untutored female engaging successfully in the “conveyance of divine truths.” Among the clerics who believed in her mission was the Reverend Hoadley Ash, a learned and pious doctor of divinity, who made the point of asking why the finger of God selected Joanna Southcott, a “weak, low, simple and illiterate woman?”[vi] Her lack of education was viewed as confirmation in the minds of her supporters that she was indeed a truly remarkable person with divine connections.
Growing up, Southcott’s early experiences were spent as a farm laborer, domestic servant and upholsterer. She joined the Methodist church, but after she began to make predictions conveyed to her by a “still small voice” she became unwelcome in the Methodist faith community.
Her prophetic career began in 1792 when she was forty-two years. The “Voice,” she claimed, “gave evidence of predicting the future based on current events.” Many of her early prophecies centered on the anticipated arrival on English soil of Napoleon Bonaparte (the beast or anti-Christ of Revelation) and his French soldiers. Her prophecies of events closer to home gave a new twist to crop failures and starvation. She warned that crop failures were the visitation from God as punishment for the clergy’s disbelief in her mission and prophetic writings.
The clergy and the privileged classes belittled her and burned or returned her letters. Some went so far as to forbid her from publishing her books, calling them blasphemous. Her movement was largely ignored by the government and the professed churches. The broad-sword of criticism from Johnson Grant (see the epigram), a Scottish parish priest and respected author of English church history, established that by 1814 most of Southcott’s predictions had failed, including the prophecy that the “devil was to be wholly banished from England.”[vii]
Her adversaries claimed that she had plagiarized her published materials and that her prophecies were secondhand.[viii] This criticism clearly annoyed Southcott. When a follower sent her some books she returned them saying, “I never read any books, at all, but write by the spirit as I am directed. I should not like to read any books to mix my senses with any works but those of the spirit by whom I write.”[ix] Apparently, her handwriting was so difficult to decipher that Ann Underwood, Southcott’s principal secretary and amanuensis, was the only one able to read her communications and correspondence.[x]
As Southcott’s confidence and fame grew she became weary of trying to convince the local clergy of her prophetic role and the truth of her visions. Among her teachings she blamed Satan for the Fall and declared that anyone who opposed her was an “enemy to the human race, and friend to the Devil.” In one widely reported episode, two men on their way to quarrel with her about her teachings on the Second Coming suddenly dropped dead on the road. Southcott explained that “my angels had served a death warrant on the two adversaries because of their insolence.” This event and her reportage of it rendered Southcott’s authority nearly unassailable among her acolytes.
Southcott’s first book at age 51 was published in 1801. It was titled The Strange Effects of Faith. This book was well received and launched a profitable writing career. During the next 13 years she published 65 books and pamphlets (many were repetitious) and it was said that Southcott attracted more than 100,000 followers from all walks of life.[xi] Several individuals of means joined her inner circle and arranged for Southcott to move to London. After arriving in London, Southcott traveled more widely. Chapels sprang up for worshipers, although she never intended to organize a church. People were attracted by her stunning promise of a redeemed England in which her true believers would soon possess the land. Spiritual warfare between Christ and Satan (what she called The Great Controversy) was central to Southcott’s writings and teachings.[xii] As the case with other millennial sects, the uncertainty and unrest in England attracted many to her teachings.
Southcott ‘sealed’ her faithful (intending to convert a 144,000 remnant mentioned in Revelation) and thus she created a loosely-organized community of believers. The process of receiving the Celestial Seal typically required the new believer to take a piece of paper and write on it a simple acceptance. This Southcott signed. The paper was then folded and sealed with special wax and the initials IC engraved on the Celestial Seal. The initials IC stood for Iesu Christi. The Seal was supposed to protect believers from the workings of Satan. There was some hint that devout possessors of the Celestial Seal might live a thousand years. Then suddenly in 1808 the Spirit ordered Southcott to stop sealing converts. This was probably because some complained that bad things happened to the sealed as well as the unsealed.
With steadfast assistance from her circle of friends her movement continued to grow despite the fact that her claims were widely refuted, particularly among the gentry. After her first book appeared in 1801, as already noted, Southcott published many more, totaling something like 5,000 pages. If her unpublished manuscripts were also counted her total output would more than double this figure. “By one conservative estimate, a total of 108,000 copies of her various works were published and circulated from 1801 to 1814, making her one of the most popular writers of her time.”[xiii] Her prophecies covered common themes; most were vague enough to be credible. A key element of her teachings was her insistence that a woman would bring about the millennial change.[xiv]
Remarkably, Southcott disclaimed any credit for her books. These writings were not her invention. She said there was “no knowledge of myself to know, nor power to fulfill.” It was, she insisted, “the work of the voice of God …Without the Spirit I am nothing, without the Spirit I know nothing, and without the Spirit I can do nothing; so whether you judge the spirit good or bad, to that Spirit you must allude the whole; for I am a living witness against every man that says my writings are my own invention.”[xv]
The Rise to Leadership
One of her most dependable supporters was the famous London engraver William Sharp. In promoting Southcott to the Bishop of Exeter the engraver justified his convictions by saying; “The present awful state of the world has been increasing in calamities, ever since the year 1792, the very year when the SPIRIT OF PROPHECY was given to Joanna. Let any person only compare the state of this nation, beginning at that year 1792, with what it is at present; let them well consider the burdens have increased upon the people: the sufferings many must have gone through, by dearth and scarcity, and an uncommon increase of national taxes and other heavy expenses!”[xvi]
By 1811 the followers of Southcott were full of both anticipation and dread. The end was “nigh” and many cancelled social engagements, thinking they would have to leave London at any moment.[xvii] Further corroboration came in September with the arrival of an ominous comet in the night skies. There were floods, storms, fires and volcanic eruptions —what did all this portend?
But then after spectacular earlier growth, recruitment to Southcott’s movement slowed. Apparently, her teachings thrived best in a world of disasters and fears and in the fall of 1813 there was good news on nearly every front. Believers grew restless; how long would they have to wait for His kingdom to be established? In November 1813 Southcott released a letter to the Morning Herald that the day of Salvation was to be expected in April of the following year (1814).
Southcott’s interpretation of Revelation 12:1 led her to believe that she was the “woman clothed with the sun,” and was to bring forth a messianic child named Shiloh.[xviii] She communicated to her following (she claimed she was still a virgin) that the Spirit had promised her, “This year, in the sixty-fifth year of thy age, thou shalt have a Son by the power of the MOST HIGH.” The child’s name was to be Shiloh.[xix] There was a clear Biblical precedent for such a promise despite her age. If God could work miracles in ancient times He could do the same today. Finally the Prince of Peace was coming.
Thousands began to converge on London. The eager anticipation of the birth of Shiloh caused many to send Southcott elaborate gifts for the child. There were laced caps, embroidered bibs, silver cups, gold coins, even a royal manger equipped with lamb’s wool mattress. There was bedding of the finest linen, and golden pap-spoons. A blind woman gave a sixpence. Finally, Southcott refused to accept any more gifts and promised that gifts would be returned if there was no child.
At the beginning of August at least nine medical men, over the course of several days, interviewed and examined Southcott concerning her pregnancy. Seven entertained no doubt but that she was pregnant. However, two physicians, Dr. Sims and Adams of the Small-pox Hospital were not satisfied. For one thing, Southcott would not allow a pelvic examination, permitting the medical men only to examine her breasts which had swollen in anticipation of the child. So the handful of doctors who pronounced her with child based their findings on her own female intuition and considerations of the children-bearing women around her. The truth of her anticipated motherhood rested on her word and her enlarged breasts.
The Failed Prophecy and Death of Joanna Southcott
The Monitor began issuing official bulletins on the progress of the “pregnancy.” These were sent throughout the country. The Times criticized the Monitor for pandering to the populace, but the Monitor enjoyed an unparalleled increase in circulation and the editor welcomed all news and letters, particularly correspondence from the attending physicians. The expected arrival was October 1814. By November the eminent Dr. Richard Reece (author of The Medical Guide and other learned treatises), who had continued his visits with the expectant mother was puzzled and began to worry about his reputation as a physician. He flinched a bit, but he refused to despair as his beliefs were deeply and sincerely held. Even though he was beginning to waver, he still maintained along with the rest of the true believers they would all “see her as promised, with the child in her arms and milk in her breasts.”[xx]
On Saturday December 24 Southcott’s health was failing rapidly and a nurse standing near her side felt a swelling the size of a baby’s head along her abdomen which suddenly disappeared after a sharp kick.
When Ann Underwood, her faithful companion, asked the expectant mother how she was feeling, Southcott whispered, “I am not afraid to appear before my God, as I have done nothing but what I believed to be in true obedience to my Lord.” Two nights later her breathing was slow and labored and her last breath was drawn exactly as the clock struck four in the morning. Southcott was dead. Deep sorrow and despair spread through her followers. A pressing question remained —was there still a child in her womb?
For the first four days, under directions from her inner circle, the cadre of physicians was not allowed to determine the cause of death, if indeed she was dead. Southcott had instructed her followers to keep her warm for four days in case she returned from the dead. Should she fail to revive after four days, doctors were to dissect her body and release Shiloh. Days later, in the course of the autopsy performed by Dr. Reece there was no sign of pregnancy nor was a child discovered. Her uterus was the size of a pear. With fear of an uproar from the disillusioned her body was placed in a plain coffin and she was buried quietly in the cemetery in St. John’s Wood.[xxi]
Afterwards, engraver William Sharp said confidently, “On Christmas Day the Child was born or about that time…I have not a Particle of doubt on my mind that the Power who created all things caused this wonderful Event to take place for our final restoration to happiness.”[xxii] Southcott was not mistaken, she was not deceived —King Shiloh had been a spiritual birth rather than a temporal one.
Disciple John Wroe (1781-1837) gracefully rose to save Southcott’s prophecy, claiming to be the successor of the prophetess. First, he reminded the devoted that the doctors found her pregnant. Indeed, many of her other specific prophecies had come true. Returning to the messianic vision, he prompted the adherents to believe that Shiloh had been quietly taken directly from the womb to heaven to mature. Thus, Shiloh lived, and after heavenly instructions would return, sometime around 1820. But 1820 came and went without a Messiah and Southcott’s writings descended into obscurity.
The extraordinary thing about this story is that there have been believers in every subsequent generation who, notwithstanding the failure of Southcott’s predictions, continue to gather together across the earth. They look for the Final Millennium in a “mood of wistful expectation.”[xxiii]
This historical saga confirms that direct refutation of a belief system can be, and often is, transformed into a confirmation of the failed prophecy. At times all of us are susceptible to a variety of failures in reasoning. The celebrated Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger certainly recognized the psychology underlying the human response to failed prophecy in a theory that he called “cognitive dissonance.” The theory goes like this:
When the mind holds thoughts or ideas that are in conflict, or when it is assaulted by facts that contradict core beliefs, an unpleasant sensation or discomfort is created. The holder of such beliefs will then move to resolve the dissonance by bringing the ideas into compatibility again. The goal isn’t truth or accuracy per se; it is to achieve consistency between one’s present knowledge and one’s prior beliefs. This is especially true where the strongly held beliefs are both consistent with the cognitive mind and emotional disposition of the individual.[xxiv] Fundamentally this happens because much of our thinking occurs in an automatic, subconscious manner.
Joanna Southcott was born deeply religious in the Age of Reason, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. This age was permeated with irrational beliefs and superstitions. At times she was troubled that it might be the Devil speaking to her rather than the Holy Spirit.[xxv] Despite the bitter disillusionment that occurred in her followers when Southcott failed to deliver the second messiah, many of her followers explained the disappointment away by stating that “God has disappointed us to test our love for Him.”[xxvi]
T. Joe Willey, received his PhD in neuroscience from the University of California, Berkeley and taught at Loma Linda Medical School, Walla Walla and La Sierra University. He has contributed a number of articles to the Spectrum blog.
[ii]Norman Cohn. Cosmos, Chaos & the World to Come. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press. 1969.
[iii] Jon R. Stone (editor). Expecting Armageddon: Essential Reading in Failed Prophecy. New York, NY: Routledge. 2000). see also, Paul Boyer. When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture. (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 1992.)
[iv] Deuteronomy 18:21-22.
[v] Frances Brown. Joanna Southcott and James K. Hopkins. A Woman to Deliver Her People. (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. 1982.)
[vi] James K. Hopkins. A Woman to Deliver Her People. Joanna Southcott and English Millenarianism in an Era of Revolution. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. 1982. p. 123
[vii]Johnson Grant. A Summary of the History of the English Church. London, England: J. Hatchard. 1814. p. 466.
[viii]Johnson Grant. p. 454.
[ix]Hopkins. p. 10.
[x]Hopkins. p. 94. Underwood was one of the best known individuals in the movement. Her handwriting was instantly recognized. Only rarely did she express her own opinions
[xi] Historians actually place this estimate as low as 20,000.
[xii]Joanna Southcott. The Controversy of the Spirit with the Worldly Wise. March, 1811.
[xiii]Sylvia Bowerbank. Joanna Southcott (1750-1814) Prophet and Writer. In the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2004-13.
[xv]Hopkins. p. 34.
[xvi]Hopkins. p. 185.
[xvii]Frances Brown. Joanna Southcott. The Woman Clothed with the Sun. Cambridge, England: The Lutterworth Press. 2002. p. 235.
[xviii] An obscure figure mentioned in Genesis 49:10.
[xix]Hopkins. p. 199. Church of England clergyman G.R. Balleine looked at the original Hebrew and concluded that this text was so obscure to be “almost untranslatable.” Edward Green. p. 21.
[xx]Hopkins. p. 209.
[xxi]Hopkins, p. 210.
[xxii]Hopkins. p. 211.
[xxiv]Leon Festinger, et al. When Prophecy Fails. (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 1956.). see also Leon Festinger, et al. “Unfulfilled Prophecies and Disappointed Messiahs.” p. 31. In Jon R. Stone, (ed.). see note 3.