A Religious Humbug On John Bull

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

ars, 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 offences, 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 in

considerable 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 side-walks 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 ante-rooms and corridors, "in full fig," to receive the

expected guest. But the evening passed, then midnight came, then

morning, but alas! 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


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 re-appear some fine morning, with Sanderson on

one side of her and Sharp on the other.