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Strange Messiah: The Prophecies of Joanna Southcott

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Robert writes eclectic and informative articles about a variety of historical subjects, including unusual events and people.

Joanna Southcott

Joanna Southcott

The Power of Belief

The history of humankind’s search for truth and revelation is full of many strange by-ways, detours and dead ends. One such dead end, both literally and figuratively, involved the British prophetess and religious seer, Joanna Southcott (April 1750–27 December 1814).

Southcott, a simple servant woman, claimed to be guided by the Spirit of Truth and to represent the fulfillment of part of the Bible’s Book of Revelation, as the Woman of the Apocalypse (also known as the Woman Clothed in the Sun), who would give birth to a divine child named Shiloh.

Southcott's Ministry

Southcott wrote copious amounts of letters and books expounding her divine lessons and prophecies. In time her reputation for honesty, the fact that her writings seemed too sophisticated for a woman with no formal education, and the power of her preaching convinced many that she was a genuine prophetess.

Although she was widely derided as a fraud in the British newspapers and by caricaturists such as George Cruikshank, and even was unflatteringly portrayed by Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, her following grew. At one point, there were an estimated 100,000 Southcottians who believed that she was, in fact, a divine messenger.

Controversy ensued when people who were or at least claimed to be associated with Southcott began selling printed seals which supposedly would guarantee the owner entry into paradise after the Apocalypse. Seating was limited to 144,000 persons, and therefore, the seals were in high demand and sold for exorbitant prices. Southcott denied that she was profiting from the sale of these magic tickets to heaven.

The Woman of the Apocalypse

The Woman of the Apocalypse

A Miraculous Birth (Sort Of)

Near the end of her life, when Joanna Southcott was 63 years old, she announced that she was pregnant. Presumably, this would be a Virgin Birth since she was unmarried, and she would give birth to a child named Shiloh, in fulfillment of Biblical prophecy.

She also predicted that the end of the world would come in 2004 or 2014 and indicated that she was sealing her most important prophecies in a box which was only to be opened after her death at a time of national crisis and only in the presence of 24 Bishops of the Church of England, who were to spend seven days and seven nights studying her other writings before opening the box.

Interestingly, several medical professionals at the time examined Southcott and declared her to be pregnant. Of course, they did not have the benefit of ultrasounds or even the most basic pregnancy tests, so they were either deceived by Southwood herself or mistook a false pregnancy such as a tumor for the real thing.

Contemporary lampoon of Joanna Southcott

Contemporary lampoon of Joanna Southcott

Lingering Controversies

As the time appointed for the birth of the Shiloh, a new Messiah, approached, crowds gathered outside of Southcott’s house. Their hopes were dashed when it was announced that although Southcott had given birth, it was a spiritual birth, and moreover the Shiloh child had been immediately taken up to heaven. What a letdown! Interestingly, Southcott did not have to face the music because she died immediately afterwards, supposedly in childbirth.

The disillusionment following the false pregnancy led many people to abandon the faith. However, the sect that Southcott had started did not die out and incredibly still has some believers, mostly concentrated in the village where she lived and died. These people still await the second coming of her child and also await the opening of the box of secrets sealed by Southcott before her death.

The fate of the Southcott box has been shrouded in mystery and controversy. Its current whereabouts are unknown. One box was opened in the early twentieth century and found to contain a loaded gun, supposedly set to fire at whoever opened the box, but the authenticity of this box is disputed, and whatever one may think of Southcott and her teachings, it is most likely that she was sincere and saw herself as a prophet of God. The idea that she would stage a murder of the unsuspecting opener of her box is very unlikely, so the box that was opened is probably not the one containing her last writings.

One of Southcott's many books

One of Southcott's many books

In any case, the conditions for the opening of the box have never been fulfilled. The Bishops of the Church of England refuse to participate or legitimize Southcott’s teachings, and none have volunteered to attend the opening of the box, even if the true box can be found.

However, other groups have not been as disdainful as the Bishops of the Church of England. At least one religious sect regards Southcott’s writings as part of a Third Testament of the Bible, comprising the new teachings of God. Despite all the evidence, Southcott continues to be regarded as a (new) Biblical prophet on par with Elijah or Ezekiel. Some of the more out there followers inexplicably claim that Southcott’s stillborn child was reincarnated as Prince William which goes to prove that people are strange, and their beliefs are even stranger.


Ashutosh Joshi from New Delhi, India on October 08, 2016:

Yup it might be, I guess her faith was strong and so there's a possibility, she might have been decieved for ulterior motives of some.

Robert P (author) from Canada on October 08, 2016:

I would agree with you except for the fact that she died in "childbirth". She didn't fake that. And the fact she died when giving birth suggests that her symptoms were real, though misdiagnosed, and she likely died from her condition.

I think Southcott really believed she was pregnant, because she mistook a tumor or some other medical condition for a pregnancy. To her, given her age, beliefs and the fact there could not be an earthly father, her symptoms of pregnancy could only mean that she had been chosen for a miraculous birth.

Ashutosh Joshi from New Delhi, India on October 08, 2016:

Back in the 17th century this would have looked more convincing but today it sounds more like a tale of deceit!